How to Avoid Viewpoint Slips

by Marg McAlister

 

Sit back, and imagine what it feels like to be you. Now that shouldn't be too hard - you've lived in your own skin for a long time. 

  • Do you feel happy or sad?
  • Do you feel on edge or relaxed?
  • Do you feel tired or energetic?
  • Do you feel angry or calm? 

Now think about how you know these things.

You have various bodily symptoms that accurately represent your feelings. "Happiness" feels light and contented. You might be sitting there quietly humming a tune. You might be suffused with a quiet feeling of well being.

"Sadness" is different. If you're sad, the world suddenly seems a grey, cheerless place. There's a heaviness in your chest, and maybe even a silent cry of despair that you're aching to let go. Perhaps you have a lump in your throat from trying to hold back the tears; trying to keep a stiff upper lip.

That's what it FEELS like to be you when you're happy or sad.

Now imagine you're going to nip across into someone else's body for a moment. Someone standing across the room looking at you. How can that person tell that you're happy?

They might see a slight smile tugging at the corners of your mouth. You just can't help showing your happiness. They can hear you humming softly. Your eyes sparkle. Your voice sounds upbeat and happy.

How might they know if you're sad? They can't, after all, FEEL that heavy weight in your chest. They can't know that you're so, so close to letting out a wail of despair. They can't know about that lump in your throat.

But they know you're sad. They can see the dullness in your eyes; the slump in your posture. They might be able to detect a quiver in your lips as you try not to cry. They can hear the despair or flatness in your voice.

In short: you, the viewpoint character, know what it FEELS like to be you. You're looking at the world from the inside.

The onlooker can put together information only from what they can SEE. They're looking at you from the outside.

1. Reap the Benefits of Deep Viewpoint

Every writer wants readers to become deeply immersed in the characters they invent. In effect, when someone reads, they 'become' the main person in the scene. The deeper inside that person's viewpoint you can help the reader go, the more convinced the reader is that this character is 'real'.

The easiest way to achieve this reader identification is to help them experience what it feels like to be that person - not to tell the reader by looking on from the outside.

2. Some Examples: (1) In Deep POV And (2) As An Onlooker

Here are a few examples to help you remember the difference.

1. HAPPINESS. In deep POV: a surging feeling of joy or quiet happiness; a desire to smile at everyone you see; talking to people with a smile on your face. The onlooker sees: a cheerful face; a ready laugh; a light, quick walk; humming or whistling a happy tune.

2. ANGER. In deep POV: your chest feels as though it might burst with fury; you breathe in short gasps; you want to punch or hurt someone; you feel like bursting into tears of rage; you feel the blood rush to your head. The onlooker sees: eyes glaring; a red face; lips thinning, words uttered in haste or a shout; a punch being thrown, objects being tossed aside; an aggressive stance (hands on hips).

3. What About Describing A Character's Features?

This is where a lot of writers run into trouble. Torn by the need to 'show' the reader what a character looks like, they hop in and out of the main character's mind at dizzying speed.

If you start out in a character's mind, it's best to stay there for the duration of the scene. (Yes, I know there is debate in literary circles about this, and there always will be. What you have to decide is what is best for your character.)

Why is it best to stay in your character's mind? The single most important reason is that your reader will identify more closely with your character. They more or less become that person. (Well, they will if you write well enough!)

At this point I'll return to what it feels like to be you. That's where we started, remember? You're the only one who knows what it really feels like to live in your skin and in your mind. That's what you need to aim for when it comes to your character. Become that person!

Therefore, if you are living inside that person's skin, then you can't know what he/she looks like from the outside. (Not unless your character walks around with a hand-held mirror all the time. And is vain enough to keep looking into it.)

So... resist the temptation to write something like this:  

Viv sat on the rocks, her hazel eyes on the gulls swooping down at the water. It was decision time. Should she go with Chris's squad or not? He was dynamic and encouraging. His team would do anything for him. But he didn't get the same results as Blake. Blake could reduce her to tears with his scathing comments, true - but she knew it was all so she'd dig deep for that extra bit of effort that would earn her the win. She sighed, and ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. It would be a heck of a lot easier if someone would just tell her what to do. Idly, she tossed another rock into the lapping waves, not realizing that the frown on her face made her look exactly like her mother in one of her uncompromising moods.  

Have you picked out the parts that pull the reader out of Viv's body, thus giving the impression of an 'onlooker' present? There are three. 

1. "...her HAZEL eyes...". Viv can't see the colour of her own eyes - only an onlooker would be able to see that. Nor is she likely to be thinking about the colour of her eyes at a time like this. By mentioning the colour, you make the reader aware that 'someone else' is in the scene looking AT Viv, rather than 'being' her.

2. "...and ran her fingers through her short BLONDE hair." It's entirely possible that she would be able to feel that her hair is short while she performs this action (although it's not likely she'd be thinking about it) but she can't see the colour of her hair. If she had *long* hair, and the wind was blowing it in front of her eyes, you could perhaps say 'she brushed aside the strands of blonde hair blowing in her eyes'.

3. "...not realizing that the frown on her face made her look exactly like her mother in one of her uncompromising moods". Ugh. This structure is B-A-D! For a start, the author has written '...not realizing that...'. If she doesn't realize it, then it's not in her mind at all - so why mention it? And there is no way that Viv can know that the frown on her face is making her look like her mother in one of her moods. Very clumsy! 

If you want to show what a character looks like, do it later in a scene from someone else's viewpoint. If someone is looking at Viv, they would be able to see things like the colour of her hair and eyes and the way her frown makes her look like her mother. But Viv can't see these things herself... so if you want to stay deep inside her skin, don't fall into the trap of showing them.

And that will make you a better writer.

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

 

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