Why Fewer Viewpoints is Usually Better
Sat Jul 07 2018
Probably the first question authors face, after being struck with an initial idea for a story, is what viewpoint or viewpoints to tell the story from. Is it best told from one character's perspective, a few, or many?
Today I want to address that, prompted by this question from reader Jacob Hess:
"Would it be a mistake to tell the story from other points of view in addition to my protagonist?"
It's not a mistake necessarily, but also not something to be cavalier about.
There's no one right answer that applies to all stories. But today I want to argue that most stories are better served by telling the story from as few viewpoints as you can get away with.
There's a saying among writers that a novelist can generally handle a number of viewpoints equal to the number of manuscripts they've completed, plus or minus one. This is simply because building up the skills necessary to do justice to a Game of Thrones style "cast of thousands" takes time.
Yes, you may have some grand epic story in mind (don't we all), but if you're on your first or second manuscript, you might not be up to the task yet.
A viewpoint is a promise
Part of why building up that skill takes time is that a viewpoint is a promise. The decision to grant a viewpoint to some character is not to be taken lightly, because in doing so you are admitting readers into the inner lives of that person. Consequently, you are making an implicit promise to the reader to fully develop this character.
A viewpoint promises that you will treat that person's hopes and dreams, their attitudes and beliefs, their goals and motivations, their strengths and foibles, with all the careful diligence you apply to your main characters.
Do you really want to go through all that for your minor characters? Probably not. It's a no-win either way: if you don't, you break the implicit promise of viewpoint-ness. But if you do, you weigh down your story with extraneous diversions away from your main plotline.
Go ahead and give your main characters viewpoints. Readers want that level of development for the principal players. But we don't need it for the sidekicks and incidental players we meet along the way.
The more viewpoints you're jumping between, the harder it is for readers to track what's going on. Part of that is simply because of those extraneous diversions I mentioned above. But most of it is because a viewpoint is a strong signal to the reader that this is important. A viewpoint tells us that we need to bother caring about a certain character's beliefs, goals, motivations, and all the rest.
People are really good at creating mental models of other human beings, so we can understand what somebody is all about and thereby anticipate what they might do and how they'll react. We're good at it, but it still takes effort. When you drop a new viewpoint on us, you're telling us to create a new mental model of this character that we can fill up with details as we go.
Again, that's fine for your major characters. But if you go haphazardly making us create all these mental models for characters who don't actually matter all that much, you're wasting our effort, cluttering up our brains, and creating much more difficulty in figuring out what does matter.
I talked a lot about emotional distance in a couple of posts I did a long time ago about the differences between 1st and 3rd person POVs (see here and here). The long and short of it is that the number of viewpoints readers are juggling affects their sense of emotional closeness with the characters.
Fewer viewpoints yields a more intimate reader/character bond. More viewpoints dilutes that bond, leaving readers caring less about any of your characters. Depending on what kind of story you're writing, maybe emotional intimacy isn't important. However, modern fiction leans towards more intimate portrayals than did the novels of yesteryear, and thus works better without extraneous viewpoints in the mix.
Multiple viewpoints can also be a sign of lazy writing. Writers will often find themselves stuck in a situation where their characters are here, but they'd really like for the reader to know what's going on over there.
If you're writing in omniscient style, then no big deal. You just start talking about what's going on over there. But if you're writing in first-person or in a 3rd person limited perspective, where the narration is locked onto your viewpoint characters, then how do you convey it?
The lazy answer is to just bestow a viewpoint on somebody who happens to be over there and can thus witness the events in question. It's a convenient solution, but just like a bottle of soda at the airport, convenience comes at a pretty high cost. Viewpoints are quite expensive in terms of all the other factors I've touched on.
One argument I've heard for multiple viewpoints is that they are simply necessary in order to tell a given story. "How could you tell Star Wars from just one viewpoint? Or Lord of the Rings? Those stories need a bunch of viewpoints."
I agree that the true sprawling-epic tales generally do need more viewpoints than other types of stories. But as I often say to my kids, "need" is a strong word.
To work, a story only requires a coherent narrative. Many novelists think this means they have to show readers everything that happens, everywhere, even far away from their protagonists, but this is not so. After all, your protagonist only gets to experience one viewpoint--their own.
Yes, that means they don't always know or understand everything that's happening (which, by the way, is good because it creates drama). The limitations of their viewpoint mean they will often be surprised or caught unawares by events.
And yet, to them their own life still makes sense. Their own life is still a coherent narrative from within their own perspective. They have many ways of learning about distant events without actually being there. So if you only told the protagonist's view of the story, it would still work.
That applies to anything. You can tell any story from just one point of view and it will still yield a coherent narrative.
That doesn't mean there wouldn't be tradeoffs. I'm not saying it would be the same story as the cast-of-thousands version. Lord of the Rings, told from just Frodo's perspective, would not have the broad, lavish world-building as the way Tolkien wrote it.
I am only saying that story would still make sense. It would still have a through-line that would be just as coherent to readers as it is to Frodo himself. It would still be viable. It would not be as broad, but it would have far greater depth concerning Frodo. Readers would develop a much richer mental model about Frodo than we are presently able to.
You won't miss what you never see
You, who have had the experience of reading or seeing the multi-viewpoint versions of those stories, understand what would be lost if those stories were shrunk down to just one viewpoint. But your readers, who have not yet read the novel you're still writing, won't miss what they never had.
On the flip side, you who have only ever read and seen the multi-viewpoint versions of those epics, don't know what kind of experience you might have had--what emotional connection to the characters you might have felt--in a single-character version.
On the whole, I suggest that people tell a story from as few viewpoints as possible. And in practice, that minimum number usually does turn out to be just one.