Choosing a Viewpoint Character

In most cases, the viewpoint character of a novel (the one whose eyes we witness the events through) is the same person as the novel's protagonist (the central character, or the one the whole novel is "about").

For most novels, though, the choice is an obvious one. In fact, the central character is often the spark that ignites the novel in the first place. And so, given that you know who your novel's protagonist is, and given that the protagonist is also the viewpoint character in most novels, the question of who to choose has conveniently resolved itself.

Well, mostly...

There is still the issue of choosing viewpoint characters who are not the novel's protagonist.

There are two circumstances under which lesser characters - that is, non-protagonists - will become viewpoint characters...

  1. In a Multiple Viewpoint Novel - that is, novels in which more than one character is a viewpoint character.
  2. When you use a First Person "Observer" as a narrator - which isn't nearly as complicated as it might sound.

1. Multiple Viewpoint Novels

It is possible to write a Multiple Viewpoint Novel in which every pov character is of equal importance - meaning all of them are protagonists.

  • You could write a boy-meets-girl novel, for example, told from both the boy's and the girl's viewpoints equally.
  • Or you could write an ensemble piece, told from perhaps a dozen viewpoints, in which each viewpoint character's story is of more or less equal importance - a murder-mystery novel, for example, told from the viewpoints of the twelve suspects.

But in most multi-viewpoint novels, you have the novel's protagonist, who gets to be the pov character in most of the chapters (not least the opening and closing ones), with the remaining chapters being told by one or more of the lesser characters.

The question is: Which of your lesser characters should you choose to be a viewpoint character?

And the answer is this: only those characters who have an interesting mini-story to tell, one which sits comfortably within the main story and adds an extra dimension to it.

So suppose you are writing a detective novel and you can't decide whether to tell it solely from the detective's point or view, or to give the detective's sidekick some chapters in which to be in the spotlight...

  • If the sidekick has no role in the novel other than to act as a foil to the detective, don't make them a viewpoint character. They are not interesting or important enough.
  • But if you make the sidekick Muslim, say, and if he is on the receiving end of racism at work, and if the murder is racially motivated, then, yes, the sidekick's mini-story would certainly be interesting enough to weave into the fabric of the main story.

(We will be looking at multi-viewpoint novels in a lot more detail in just a moment.)

2. Using an "Observer" Narrator

The second circumstance under which non-protagonists can become viewpoint characters is in first person novels using a "displaced" or "observer" narrator.

I actually referred to this earlier in this section, when I talked about the Sherlock Holmes novels being narrated not by Holmes but by Doctor Watson. Holmes is clearly the protagonist of those novels, but it is through Watson's eyes that we see the events unfold.

Under what circumstances should you consider using a Watson-type character to be your viewpoint character?

If your first person novel's protagonist, like Sherlock Holmes, is too larger-than-life, too mysterious, too brilliant - too anything to really connect with the readers then one solution can be to tell the novel instead from the point of view of somebody more ordinary, somebody more like the readers - somebody like Doctor Watson.

I will be looking at First Person "Observer" Narrators in more detail later on in this section. I just wanted to briefly mention it here as an illustration of viewpoint characters who are not protagonists.

For the most part, though, any viewpoint character you use who is not the novel's protagonist, will be one of the lesser viewpoint characters in a multiple viewpoint novel. And it is this type of character I want to discuss in the next article: How to Write a Multiple Viewpoint Novel.