Stay with Your Mainstay

The term “omniscient narrator” can mislead many an author into believing that a scene’s point-of-view character, the one through whom the scene is told, can be anyone. That’s the reason for the omniscient voice, right? A first-person narrator is limited to what he witnesses, and you may have a number of plot events that occur beyond that limited purview.

That convenience stands in contrast to the depth of immersion a reader experiences with a novel told in the first-person. A lone character can sweep a reader along with her point of view, divulging commentary and thoughts as part of a united vision of the world. The reader identification that develops is closer because nothing breaks up the flow.

You can maximize the advantages of the first-person voice even if your story requires multiple narrators by adopting a few commonsense principles. First, limit the number of points of view. Let’s say the protagonist tells his side of the tale, and the antagonist tells the other. In a 400-page book, the protagonist might “own” 250 pages and the antagonist 150 pages. That’s a lot of length devoted to both of them, enough that the reader becomes steeped in their personalities.

If you have odd scenes that your core characters can’t narrate, you’re better off curbing the number of thoughts and feelings the infrequent point-of-view character has. Each time you give a character a thought, that requires the reader’s participation. Yet that character is only performing a plot function; why are you requiring any emotional commitment at all?

Third, a character’s prominence, in terms of job or title held, doesn’t mean a thing to the reader. The President, for example, is almost always a minor character, so giving her any depth of feelings places an undue dramatic weight on her. She hasn’t earned that right through length of coverage, and that’s what determines immersion.

Whatever you do, don’t write a scene in which your protagonist does not own the point-of-view. If he is subordinated to another character, that tells the reader he’s not as important. Even worse, the reader wants to know what the lead character is feeling—much more than what some temporary usurper feels. When that happens, regard it as a signal that you have to work harder to inhabit your protagonist.

Exercise: How do you determine who should own the point-of-view? Simple math can go a long way. Draw up a chart listing each major character, thumb through the manuscript page by page—and count. Who has the most pages? That’s who should carry the book for you.

“The third-person narrator, instead of being omniscient, is like a constantly running surveillance tape.”
—Andrew Vachss

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.