Viewpoint is one of the most elusive subjects in a writer’s world — who should tell the story, and how? Many writers are known for using the first person, while others write exclusively in the third person. Second person viewpoint is rarely used except in young children’s fiction, so for the purposes of this article, we’ll talk primarily of first and third. Believe it or not, viewpoint is not usually decided based solely on what the author prefers. Instead, you should carefully consider all aspects of the story you want to write.
The first factor you should consider when choosing the viewpoint for your manuscript is the main character. Most adult fiction books have one main character and a few almost-main characters, which means that the story is frequently told through multiple viewpoints. Unless you want the entire plot to unravel through the eyes of your main character only, don’t use first person. Some writers, such as James Patterson, have successfully alternated between first and third person throughout a book, but this is something a new writer should not attempt.
It is often difficult for new writers to understand style, and what goes into creating it. Honestly, style is rather easy to identify because it is simply the unique way in which you arrange words on the page. The only time that style becomes complicated is when you are writing in first person. What you have to understand is that a first person story is not told through the style of the author; rather, you must speak in the unique voice of your main character. This means that you must understand your main character sufficiently to write from his or her mind; the question is not what you would say in a given situation, but what your main character would say. In a third person manuscript, your style is more dependent upon your particular voice.
Many writers use the technique of storytelling called omniscience. This means that the author knows what is going on outside the realm of the main character’s five senses; the author can comment on things happening across the city or even the country. This is used primarily when the author wishes to tell the story of several characters rather than focusing on the main character. For example, if you’ve ever read anything by Tom Clancy, you know that he jumps from person to person and only ties the characters together at the end. You can only use omniscience if you are writing in the third person viewpoint.
One of the best arguments for using the third person is that it allows you to really get inside the mind of your main character. His or her thoughts are broadcast in every sentence, and it is from his or her unique perspective that the story is told. Not only do you get to describe what is happening, but also how the main character perceives events. This is something that cannot occur in the third person — at least not to the same extent. When you want to tell a story from one person’s viewpoint and with his or her “spin” on events, first person is the best way to go.