Writing Excuses Episode 23: Viewpoint

You’ve heard about viewpoint, but do you really know what it means? Discover along with Howard the magic world of person, tense, and omniscience, and how you can use them to tell your story. It’s a short journey, as quests go, but we’ll all learn a valuable lesson about writing–and about ourselves.*

*Heartfelt lessons about ourselves not guaranteed. Contents non-refundable.


43 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 23: Viewpoint”

  1. I’m reading a YA novel where that is written in first person present tense. I understand why the writer wrote it that way, because typically speaking when you write in first person past tense it’s the narrator is looking back on the conflict and telling what happened. That means that the reader already knows that the main character lived through the conflict. So the writer wanted to keep a little more suspense by making it a present tense, the only problem was it took me about four chapters to get used to the tense. The novel was a New York Times Bestseller, but the tense and the fact that it’s just not my style of novel makes it really hard for me to get into.

  2. O.K. Let’s see if I have this right.

    1st person: one head

    3rd person ltd: many head

    , or am I confusing the issue? I had kind-of thought that I was using a combination of the two. With a personel view-point together with narration.

    However, that could be confirmation of the mark of an amateur.

  3. One book that does first person in such a way that you have no idea whether the narrator will live or die is LATRO IN THE MISTS by Gene Wolfe. Latro, the main character, forgets everything he’s done every twenty-four hours, so he has to write things down on a scroll he carries around that says “Read Me” on the outside. Every so often, he is parted from his scroll and others write in if for him.

    The problem with that book, though, was that the end was very confusing. Because Latro was not writing the conclusion, it’s a little tough to figure out exactly what happened. No, that’s not true. You can figure out what happened, just not exactly why.

  4. I’ve been told several times that if you’re starting out, you’re making life harder for yourself by picking first person. It’s not that it can’t be done, but that it is harder to do well. Any comments on this?

  5. Man, I loved recording this one. It’s always fun to learn something new in front of an audience.

    Oh, and for the record I have determined that lately my viewpoint has been “third person cinematic,” with occasional dalliances with an omniscient narrator (footnotes, for example.)

  6. I’m not a fan of 3rd person omniscient, despite it being ever present (am I trying to be ironic?). Not say that there aren’t good books in this form. However, it get tired of jumping away from a favored character and having to plod through a less favored character.

    One example of 3rd person omniscient in cinema would be the Star Wars movies. It would almost be possible to cut together all of Darth Vader’s scenes in IV, V & VI to make a movie of his own. He has his own character development and story separate but intertwined with Luke’s.

    That having been said, I would like to hear the definition of 3rd person cinematic.

    In the current series of scripts that I’m writing I had determined to keep the viewpoint with the main character (usually also the protagonist). In the third script I finally decided to try a cut away to another location to hear what the antagonists were talking about. But since I had two sets of characters having similar conversations, discovering much of the same information, I jumped between each set as if they were completing each other’s sentences. Nonetheless, I have still not strayed away from the main character’s viewpoint.

    By the fifth script I felt comfortable enough to give individual scenes to specific characters away from the others. Since they generally still fit under the collective banner of the protagonist I’m guessing I’m writing this in the cinema’s version of 3rd person limited.

    Oh, and one comic book and cartoon convention that simulates 3rd person omniscient is the thought bubble. Through this we get to hear the character’s inner monologue.

  7. My shorthand (which I included in my summary) is that first person is told by ME, and I do everything. Third person (limited) is told by a narrator, and follows one character who does everything.

    1st person: I shoved the knife into him. I felt the blood run over my knuckles.
    3rd person: He shoved the knife into him. The blood ran over his knuckles.

    Third person (omniscient) is told by a narrator who feels free to bop into any character’s head at any time (thus the all-seeing tag).

  8. I have some issues with 1st person present tense. I think they nailed it when they said that third person omniscient allows for great descriptions and it reveals what multiple characters are seeing.

    For me as a reader, first person present tense often feels like watching a movie where the edges are out of focus. There usually isn’t the great descriptive detail in first person as there is in third person.

    Also, where is the sponsored product?

  9. 1st person: one head exclusively, from its own point of view (I like beans)
    3rd person limited: one head at a time, from a narrator’s point of view (Dan likes beans, but he doesn’t like the shifty look in Howard’s eye)
    3rd person omniscient: all the heads at once, from a narrator’s point of view (Dan likes beans, and Howard wants to kill him)
    2nd person, which we didn’t really address, is almost impossible to do right outside of a Choose Your Own Adventure book (You like beans, but you have a sneaky suspicion that Howard wants to kill you. If you want to ignore him and eat more beans, turn to page 75. If you want to run away, turn to page 33. If you want to kill Howard preemptively and keep all the beans for yourself, turn to page 126.)

  10. one author that is REALLY good with present tense is Matthew Stover. He uses a combination of past and present but i always find myself looking forward to the small present tense scenes.

  11. I find myself disliking first person for its intrusiveness factor. I prefer to be able to watch what goes on, not -become- the person himself. It’s different for audiobooks, though. If I’m listening to a narrator speak as the first-person narrator then I can relax and listen as if I’m just listening to a story told around the fire.

    For this reason I prefer 3rd person limited. I can still get to know the characters, I can see into their heads, but I don’t have to become them and I’m not forced into the story. It’s a far more comfortable experience for me.

    The same thing goes for stories that have more than three or four narrators. After a while it gets tiresome jumping from head to head and the switch feels mechanical and forced more than it feels personable and natural.

  12. One thing that I believe is a lot easier to do in 3rd person are action scenes, as 3rd person allows for a more cinematic portrayal of the action. You can move the camera around, so to speak, zoom in on someone who has just been seriously hurt, vary the pacing, show how angry or frightened someone is, and so on. A 1st person narrator who is caught up in the heat of battle, fighting for his life, might not give you that variety of options, those sharp dramatic cuts. Or perhaps it can actually be done, but I think it could be quite difficult to pull off.

    Oh, and I’ll turn to page 126. Those beans are mine! Mine alone! Beeeaaans!

  13. Howard, you say you only use your narrator for scene changes “Meanwhile,..” and the odd joke. Personally, I think you are artificially restricting the meaning of “narrator” to “text box voice”. You have a second dimension of the narrator: The guy who is holding the imaginary camera and deciding what to show. That is really your narrator, that is who tells the story (buy showing us pictures rather than by describing it, but that’s just a different communication medium).

    Given that, I think you write 3rd person limited: You choose for one strip or a series of strips which character(s) you are following. You rarely switch viewpoints during a strip, if so, that is clearly communicated by a Red Bar of Evil or a narrative device such as A talking to B on the viewscreen, then scene change to B’s perspective. Taking Dan’s/Admin’s definition, that’s 3rd person limited.

    The only really omniscient narrator you have is guy-who-does-the-footnotes-and-writes-the-occasional-longer-text-bx and I see that as a different narrator than guy-who-holds-camera.

    So there, FWIW, my €0.02 on narrators in comics.

  14. I used to write in what would be considered today 3rd person omniscient, though I lacked the addition of the author as narrator.

    I have since been concentrating on 3rd person limited. Two excellent examples of this are Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time (as mentioned in the podcast) and George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series. Martin’s character Tyrion is as good an example as I could provide for very tight 3rd person limited done exceptionally well.

  15. I think part of the reason that 3rd limited has become so prevalent is that it’s easy to simulate a 3rd omniscient. Don’t get me wrong–in one scene you stick with one character’s viewpoint. No doubt about it. But by spending a lot of time in different scenes from various characters’ viewpoints, the writer can still tell what everyone is thinking. The net result is that in the end it felt a lot more like 3rd omniscient.

    For example, I have a story to tell. It’s in 3rd limited. In the first scene you get to meet Dan and Howard. Dan is the perspective character. He likes beans (er, bacon?), and is suspicious that Howard wants to kill him for said staple. He will do anything in his power to prevent the theft and murder. In the next scene Howard is the perspective character. He has stepped into a different room, where he meets Brandon and talks with him about how he wants to kill Dan for the bacon. In the third and final scene, Brandon is the perspective character, and he just wants to see a little bloodshed. He and Howard return to the original room, where Dan is pulling out a frying pan–which, Brandon thinks with glee, is potentially lethal in Dan’s hands.

    At this point, I think everyone knows what Dan and Howard are thinking . Even though neither is the perspective character, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in their heads. In fact, we probably know everything we would have known if the viewpoint were omniscient. Granted, it took a few scenes longer–it’s not as efficient as omniscient–but we also got to know the characters more intimately.

    Plus it fattens up your book if that’s a priority to you or your readers. And, honestly, in some cases it really is.

    Anyway, that may be part of the reason that 3rd omniscient has fallen into disuse.

    * * *

    On another note, my name links to a piece I wrote in first person. Near the end, I wanted to make it unclear what happened to the main character. The only way I felt I could preserve this was to switch points of view. I did this by having the main character’s journal confiscated by an enemy, who started to write in it. I simply couldn’t think up any different ways to maintain the tension.

    * * *

    I thought it was interesting that in the podcast Brandon commented that first person makes it hard to hide whether or not the main character dies. I think it’s worth noting that not all books or conflicts boil down to DOES HE LIVE OR DOES HE KILL THE BAD GUY???!!!! There are plenty of great books where there is no violence and no one gets killed–although generally not in the fantasy genre. In fact, I think it’s a shortcoming of fantasy–and, increasingly, so many other genres–that nearly every single book comes down to life and death. In real life, the stakes are not often so high, and there’s plenty of drama to be found.

    Perhaps that’s why we read and write, though, because we like high stakes. And that may be part of the reason people like fantasy–because it’s so often life and death. Or world destruction or preservation.

    * * *

    Sorry for the epistle.

  16. Even in first person, you can hide whether the main character lives or dies. The classic SFnal example is Heinlein’s “Podkayne of Mars”, told as a series of diary entries with occasional interjections (and final entry) by Poddy’s little brother.

    Heck, I’ve read it several times and still don’t know whether Poddy lives or dies, because Heinlein wrote it with both endings. She dies in the original, but he revised it for publication. When Jim Baen acquired the rights, he published both endings and had a reader contest to decide. (The best reader essays were included in a later edition.)

    Adam Hall in his “Quiller” books (spy thrillers) has an interesting variation on this. They’re first person, so you know Quiller gets out of the almost-certain-death cliffhangers at the ends of some chapters — but then Hall picks up the next chapter sometime later, and you’re halfway into the chapter before all the details of how he escaped come out. The voice helps this work, Quiller tends to be cynical, reserved and analytical.

  17. Fantasy situations are often exercises in hyperbole. You blow things into massive proportions to make a statement.

  18. I think part of the reason that third person limited is so prominent right now is because – and I have limited experience with third person omniscient so take this with a grain of salt – it’s so difficult to make something omniscient engaging. A big pull for me at least when it comes to reading books is engaging characters, and it’s harder (I think) to get close to a character when you’re one step removed, which is what omniscient does. The omniscient view can get a little dry and talky; as Howard said it’s a narration that’s a bit susceptible to the “tell” method rather than the “show” method. (I know Howard was referring to third person in general, but I think it’s even easier to fall into that when your narrator is all-knowing).

    As Brandon said, third-person limited is a great way to get inside a character’s head, and it’s more flexible than first person. Fantasy (and maybe science fiction, too?) books are quite fond of their multiple-viewpoint characters, so I don’t think it’s any wonder that third-person limited is so standard. Like Howard said, I’ve read one or two books where there were multiple first-person views. They did a Martin-esque thing where they just put the character’s name whenever the viewpoint changed (though they did it by scene breaks and not just chapter breaks, and sometimes the switches came quite fast, which got kind of jarring). Not really a bad book, but like Howard, I can’t remember the title either, which says something.

    Brandon mentioned The Name of the Wind by Rothfuss, which is an interesting study because it actually switches persons. The frame tale – that of Kvothe telling his story to Chronicler, is told in third person, while the story within the story is first person, narrated by Kvothe’s dialogue. (Erm… Monologue.) It’ll be interesting to see where these two stories go, since I’m pretty sure Rothfuss didn’t put the frame tale there just for kicks and giggles.

    …Umm. And that serves me right for leaving this midstream to go to something else, because if I was actually going somewhere with that, I -totally- forget what it was. I will likely remember at some point when I can’t get at a computer. Sorry about that. I’ll stop blathering now, except to note that in a rather amusing coincidence, I was writing a scene exactly identical to Dan’s writing prompt when I fired up the podcast this afternoon.

  19. “Exactly identical”. Yes, I like repetitive reduncancy.

    Sigh. Nevermind this writing gig, I’mma go flip burgers for a living now.


  20. “Reduncancy” indeed. I could keep digging myself into this hole, but I think I’ll just beat myself over the head with the shovel for a while instead. Might get smarter that way.


  21. Hey! Is that Raethe lying there next to that big hole?!? I think she’s still breathing. And it looks exactly identical to her beating herself with redundant repetition ad infinitum!

    Today’s episode was brought to by:

    of Walla Walla, WA.

    And the letter “B”.

  22. Hi,

    The latest p-cast concerning Viewpoint (much like the other 22 p-casts) was great. I must admit, I am becoming somewhat the WE junkie. Sitting here every monday waiting for my fix. Oh how I love my addiction!

    Now on to the matter at hand…

    Your last p-cast on Viewpoint, and to be more specific the 1st-person viewpoint, made me thing back on two earlier p-casts – “Heros and protagonists” and “villains”. I’ve been (just for the hell of it) working on/trying to write a short-story that is being told in the 1st-person. In the story my main character confronts the deedious overlord villain guy, and in a discussion with him learns the “truth”. I know, I know, OHHH how original! The problem I am having though, is giving the “villain” character so that the reader can relate to his motives.

    So the question ist,
    How can I relate the motives of an antagonist or villain while writing from the 1st-person viewpoint?

    Or, the question could be,
    Should I re-write the whole darn short-story in 3rd-Person limited so that I can just switch over to the villain’s viewpoint?

    Any opinions on this?

    Is it monday yet?

  23. For people who are still trying to get their minds wrapped around the different viewpoints, I highly recommend “Characters and Viewpoint” by Orson Scott Card. The last part of the book deals entirely with viewpoint, with descriptions and excerpts. Even better, there are pictures for those who learn best visually. Each cartoon demonstrates the viewpoint discussed, with a camera and it’s ‘proximity’ to the characters.

  24. Dale? How do you know what the motives of any other person are? You observe them in action and infer their motives, you talk with them and their friends and weigh their words, you guess what they might do based on what you think their motives are and then see whether they actually do that. Same thing for a first-person narrative — the motives of the other people are revealed to the “I” of the story by what they do and say. Part of the fun here is that the “I” can think “I’ll bet he’s greedy” and then see whether the rascal takes money from little kids or not — or offer him a bribe and see whether he jumps.

  25. A thing occurred to me with so many saying that Third-Person: Omniscient is dull and unengaging. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a highly entertaining and engaging TPO (does that work for a TLA?) narrator. You do get the ‘encyclopedia of the absurd’ that Howard warned against, but that’s sort of the point, and I never felt detached from the main characters’ plight. I think that part of what makes it work is that the narrator can tell jokes that the characters wouldn’t find funny (but hopefully the readers will).

  26. Greetings! This is my first post here, so please allow me to thank you for the wonderful site. You guys are most generous – and hilarious – people I’ve met in The Internets in quite some time. Your podcasts are a treat, and very helpful. I can’t wait for the next one, to brighten my dreary work days. Because I am Russian, I read tons of Russian sci fi and fantasy, a lot of which is available for free online (yep, bored at work!). I noticed that the 1st person limited POW is much more prevalent, particularly when the piece is humorous. I would say, for each omniscient there are five 1st person limited. The only instance where the omniscient always wins is the “coming of age” style epic. I guess it’s harder to write a full vision of a world through the eyes of a young naive protagonist. It would be interesting to hear your ideas on which POW works best for which sub-genres.

  27. You know, I’ve come to decide that my favorite moments of these podcasts are the ones where Howard discovers something new about his own writing. Always makes me laugh out loud.

  28. Eliyanna: that is one of the beautiful things about writing. It does not need to be all cerebral and contrived. The author should just write what feels right. And more often than not, it will sound correct.

    I think Howard does a marvelous job writing, and I suspect a lot of it is intuitive. And I’m sure his many years of laboring to write have made the process much easier.

    (*DING-DING* Howard scores another compliment!)

    These podcasts are a wonderful way to start thinking about the writing process. But if it was all just a formula then all books would be the same, anyone could write them, and they would be oh-so-dull!

    Overthinking the process can be as bad as not thinking about it enough.

  29. Third limited can get very close to first and so you pick up the benefits of attitude and voice. You don’t need to be dry and neutral.


    7th Son, chapter 1

    Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head. Mama said she was too young for egging, but little Peggy showed her. Ever day she felt in every brood box and brought in every egg, every single one, that’s what she did.

    Every one, she said in her mind, over and over. I got to reach into every one.

    Then little Peggy looked back into the northeast corner, the darkest place in the whole coop, and there sat Bloody Mary in her brood box, looking like the devil’s own bad dream, hatefulness shining out of her nasty eyes, saying Come here little girl and give me nips. I want nips of finger and nips of thumb and if you come real close and try to take my egg I’ll get a nip of eye from you. ..


  30. Thanks for another great podcast guys! I listen to a lot of podcasts on writing these days, and I’ve gotta tell you that yours is the funniest hands down! It’s informative too, and I learn a lot from it, but it is the humor that makes me really look forward to it. I think having the 3 POV’s really adds a lot too.

    I wanted to post a bit on this topic of POV. I really prefer third person, myself. I find 1st person a little annoying to read, especially if the main character isn’t one I particularly identify with (that is, isn’t like me). I think that is a real risk with 1st person–if your reader doesn’t identify with that character, they may lose interest. And what are the odds you can come up with a character most people will identify with?

    I recently read a short story in the July issue of Asimov that was written in 2nd person present. It might have been a great story, I don’t know, because I stopped reading it after a few paragraphs. If you want to annoy your reader, then try 2nd person present. lol

    I have heard it said that writing is done well when it is INVISIBLE. Using uncommon tense and POV combinations draws attention to your writing, which kills the suspension of disbelief–you never forget you’re reading a story.

    From reading the posts, it sounds like some people are confused about the difference between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient. I too recommend Card’s book for getting these down.

    I think a POV violation is one of the surest ways to throw the reader out of the story. If the reader is also a writer (or knows a bit about it) it will be even worse. It’s been said that once you know and have mastered “the rules” you can occasionally break them. A good example of this is Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I’ve been reading this week. The story is told in 3rd person limited, however, there are times that he will tell you what a character other than the POV character is thinking, without the obligatory scene/chapter change or line break. When he does it, it’s only a line or two. Personally, I would prefer he didn’t do that because it throws me off a bit, but he does it well enough that you still know what’s going on. I’m curious if he still does it in his later books, because I know he wrote that book quite a while ago.

  31. @ Darrell:

    Yes!!! He (Steven King) does do it alot. It’s ok sometimes, but other times it’s just annoying.

  32. Lots of great comments, folks.

    Thanks for the compliments. And for the record, I LOVE the podcasts where I discover something new during the recording. But I also love the podcasts where I get to make a joke at the expense of somebody else.

    Dan’s comments as “Admin” above, regarding POV and “Howard wants to kill you” had me laughing out loud. It’s also a great thumbnail sketch of POV.

    Re: Cinematic — the principle difference between this POV and others is that you never get character thoughts. You only get expressions, like a movie-goer might see on the big screen.

  33. Great episode, I’m sorry I’m always behind on this podcast…

    I wanted to point out that Agatha Christie wrote a first person mystery where the narrator kept a secret: the Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was all revealed in the end, of course.

    I tend to write first person over third, but I rely on my history with acting on storytelling. I’ve also seen good examples of people who write in first person, then turn the story into third person to end up with a solid close third person story.

    What I would like you guys to talk about is the realization of first person narrators who know they are telling a story…. I still struggle with that bit of meta-fiction. Why is the character telling the story? How can I avoid making it all sound like Grampa Tolkien telling his story at bedtime? For an example, Escape Pod recently released MK Hobson’s God Juice, and there are places where the first person narrator says things like “I call him the ice princess.” These aren’t snips of dialog, but directed at the reader (listener in this case), like the narrator knows they are narrating.

    How much should a first person narrator give in to this?

  34. I have to say…

    I have not yet read a book or story that switched between 1st and 3rd persons without getting very angry.

    I just finished Dan Simmons’s _Iliad_ and it’s a very good book, but every time we switched to Hockenberry’s pov, suddenly everything’s in 1st person present, and I would audibly growl.

    an exception — _The Kents_ actually did this. But that’s a special case of 1st person. The 1st person is being related by a different narrator. When all the 1st person bits are journals or letters being read by someone, suddenly it makes sense. When you do 1st and 3rd, you tend to confuse who the narrator is. He’s not omniscient, because there’s 1st person, so where am I getting this 3rd person information?

    ok, if anyone ever comes back and reads this there will be disagreement and people will say it can work.

    But I’m going to say even if you can get a case I’ll agree with, you’re using a single exception to say the rule is universally false. Rules are made to be broken, but only if you break it on purpose and with a specific goal in mind. When you consider switching pov, remember that it’s usually a bad idea.

  35. Not that anyone is going to read this, but I’m going to open a can of worms on this topic. Viewpoint is one of those things that mainly stands in the background of the writing mosaic, especially when you are using limited-third/past. Unless you’re Suzanne Collins, and you like first-present to make things more intense. But that’s a key part of her books.

    Now…the can of worms? What was it…ah, yes. Here we go: altering the fundamentals of a story to create something unique. (i.e. having a story sit in a single specific location, or throwing out the existence of time in a story)

  36. I know no one is reading this, but I’m moved to comment after listening to this podcast.

    You guys said that, without cheating, nothing can be withheld from the readers with a 1st person narrative. That is not only false, it’s encouraging bad writing. Withholding information is one of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of using a 1st person pov. The things 1st person narrators say, and what they do not say, illustrate to the reader what kind of a character this person is. If a guy is telling an entire story about he’s a victim and no one gets him, then offhandedly mentions that he can’t go to a certain town “because of that thing that happened with the girl in the woods. Once I put my hands on her, her eyes went fire-wild. Eventually she got quiet.” OK, that’s a crappy thing I just wrote, but look at what is not said. Clearly, this character has done something that borders on assault or was violent or god knows what else. Clearly information is being withheld. Based on what the character has said in other places in the story, times when he may have been very forthcoming with information, the reader experiences moments of less than explicit description as more meaningful and more revealing of character.

    So, having things NOT explained fully or withholding information through a 1st person pov is, in my mind, one of the main reasons why you would want to use the technique.

  37. I was going to comment on this anyways but seeing Mike’s post encouraged me. First person pov can keep secrets and it can be a bit of a mind screw when it is revealed. An example of this is Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. You go the entire book thinking one way about the character but it is actually something different. Reading over it several times shows hints but for the most part the ‘I’ character does not make it known.
    It’s a challenge, but it is possible.

  38. Wow, comments from 2012!! I’ve just discovered WE, which is truly awesome, exactly what I need at the stage I’m at – it’s like you’re writing it for me! But I have felt in my first couple of weeks that I was in a time warp with events all taking place 4 years ago, so it’s great to see these posts.

    I tend to agree with @Mike and @Morgon, one person’s rule is another’s challenge – maybe it won’t work so well but most things are possible and definitely worth the attempt.

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