Viewpoint Basics.

First-person: I saw this, I did that. The "I" character speaks to the reader directly. First-person viewpoint confines the writer to what the "I" can know, whether that "I" be the author or someone else. In Turning Life Into Fiction, Robin Hemley advises: "Don't use first person simply to get closer to a character. In third person limited, you can get just as close.... You also shouldn't write in first person simply because the story happened to you. In that case, you might be better off writing in third person so you can transform the story into a fictional realm."

Third person: He saw this, he did that. The major decision when using multiple third-person viewpoints, is whose VP to use when. Make it a point to be in the head of the person who has the most to lose or the most at stake in any given scene. If a scene isn't working for you, maybe it's because you're trying to tell it from the wrong character. Try writing the scene through a different character's VP and see if that solves the problem.

Omniscient: The perspective is anybody's. This is probably the easiest viewpoint for the beginning writer--and the most dangerous. The writer is a god. He can see everything everywhere. The danger is that it may be more difficult to establish a relationship with your reader if your reader can't tell whose story it's supposed to be, or the reader isn't with one character long enough to care what happens to any of the characters.

What's the difference between omniscient narrative and author intrusion? Author intrusion is when the reader is told something while in a character's head that the viewpoint character couldn't or wouldn't think or say or know. You're in Ellen's viewpoint (third person) and she raises her aqua eyes. This is author intrusion. Ellen is not going to think of her eye color as she looks up at the handsome hero. If you want to write it that way, you need to change the viewpoint.

When a viewpoint character's eyes twinkle or gleam or glisten, these are things the character can't see unless he's standing in front of a mirror. Another common slip is when a viewpoint character's ears turn red. How does he know? He can't see them. However, he can feel them grow hot! The change is subtle, but it makes all the difference between reader involvement and reader detachment.

Hearing someone speak doesn't mean you're in that person's viewpoint. Example:

"Hello," Ellen said, eyeing the tall man before her. She liked what she saw. This might not be such a bad idea after all, she thought.

"I'm Steve Jones." Steve couldn't believe his eyes. This gal is a knockout!

First we're in Ellen's viewpoint, then Steve's, because we go into the mind's of both and hear the thoughts of both. Now the same exchange from a single viewpoint:

"Hello," Ellen said, eyeing the tall man before her. She liked what she saw. This might not be such a bad idea after all, she thought.

"I'm Steve Jones," the man said.

Ellen saw approval in his dark brown eyes as they skimmed her from head to toe.

We're getting the same information but from one viewpoint, Ellen's. Keeping a dialogue in one VP offers an opportunity for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the signals coming from the non-viewpoint character, and thus setting up a conflict or comedy-of-errors scenario. As author Tina Spencer puts it: "It's like pretending you're the character trying to read the other person's mind. You can't. That's half the fun."

Recommended reading:

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How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Describe the same neighborhood as viewed by three different people.
Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan