Viewpoint. That stumbling block of many students of creative writing. It isn’t quite as straightforward as one might imagine, in fact, whole books have been written on the subject...
Let’s keep it simple. We, as children’s writers, only need concern ourselves with those viewpoints in common usage in children’s books today.
Children relate to the point of view character in the story. Make it clear right from the start who is telling it. Unlike stories for adults, most stories for young children are told from only one point of view. If you are ‘showing’ everything from your main character’s point of view, then he or she has to be present for everything that happens.
Basically, viewpoint is divided into Objective and Subjective.
In this case the narrator only reports what can be heard and seen, like a camera, without getting inside any character’s heads. Some picture books are written in this style, supported by illustrations which depict the feelings of the characters.
This is the usual type of viewpoint and is further divided into:
The main character is telling the story in their own words using the ‘I’ pronoun – and this in itself can pose a problem because of the frequent use of the word ‘I’ and the necessity to find alternative ways of constructing the sentence. It can be a straightforward telling of the story or in the form of a diary or e-mail to a friend. Sometimes the narrator seems to address the reader directly.
The viewpoint gives a very personal bias to the story according to the personality of the character, with his own view of things, whether right or wrong. He may be misled himself or deliberately lying (unreliable narrator). This can add tension to a story as the reader gradually realises that things don’t add up.
You must know your character extremely well to use this viewpoint so that each thought or emotion or opinion is uniquely his, and there is the added problem in that the character is a child with a child’s experience of life, while you, the author, are an adult. You are limited to what this child character knows and he must be present in all scenes.
First person tends to give the impression that the narrator is telling the story after it is over (unless written in the present tense) so the reader knows that the situation was resolved somehow and the character lived to tell the tale. It is not usually used in books for younger children.
This viewpoint is in some ways like first person in that we are inside the skin of the main character telling the story from his experience only. Again, the character must be present in all scenes but there is the scope for some narration too, and also the advantage of having the story unfold rather than appear to be told after the event, as in the first person.This viewpoint entails the use of standard English rather than the character’s own voice. With this viewpoint there are levels of closeness too. We can get in so close that it eliminates the need for ‘he thought’. The thoughts are just expressed as a stream of thinking, drawing in the reader so that he almost becomes the main character. You can also distance yourself a little too – draw back, yet still stay with your main character.
The majority of children’s books are written from this viewpoint since children like to read about others and to compare the characters’ experiences with their own. Using this perspective allows you to keep your own prose style, and to interpret the character’s behaviour, while still offering depth of emotion. It is the least obtrusive viewpoint and allows the best reader involvement.
Here the story is written from more than one character’s perspective. This should only be used in books for older readers, and then with two, or maximum three, viewpoints. Changes should preferably be made between chapters or at least with page breaks so that there is no confusion.
This viewpoint should only be used for a particular reason such as allowing the reader to se both sides – the larger picture. It may be that each character sees a situation differently, and the reader must decide which one is right – or that both are right.
Here the narrator knows all and sees all. It’s a Godlike perspective where we are privy to all events, the thoughts of all the characters, and may even look into the future.
The big disadvantage with this viewpoint is that it distances the reader considerably. We cannot get close enough to any one character to empathise with them and there is a danger that we won’t care enough about any one of them to want to continue reading the book.
The omniscient point of view is most often used in fairy tales, fables and also in many picture books, where it works well when read aloud.
Look at any book on creative writing and you will find many other points of view with variations and combinations of the above, but for children keep it simple. Your main aim is to draw our reader into the story and let him – or her – experience it along with the main character.