Single Limited Viewpoint

This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my current book, Afterworlds, about a young novelist living in NYC. There’s more info on this page, and you can listen to me talking about Afterworlds here on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Point of View
Point of view is hard. It’s complicated, subtle, and confusing, and POV failure is one of the most common reasons why agents and publishers cast aside submissions half read.

To make things worse, a lot of the writing advice on the subject is unhelpful or downright wrong. Much of the terminology is broken. (“Limited omniscience” makes about as much sense as “casual nuclear attack.”) And, as I spent the previous post pointing out, POV is at the core of the novel’s primary affordance—getting us into someone else’s head.

So I’m going to talk about POV first, and at length. I’m going to invent some of my own terminology and use some old terms in new ways. (If you hate that sort of thing, go away.)

To start with the obvious: point of view isn’t one thing; it’s a toolbox. The tools inside this box can be combined in many ways, and the tools themselves are like adjustable wrenches—each possesses its own continuum of settings.

So let’s break POV into four basic elements:
1) Viewpoint (where the information of the narrative comes from)
2) Person and tense (the grammar of the narration)
3) Distance (the immediacy of the narration to the events of the story)
4) Voice (the personality of the narration, especially its attitude toward the reader).

I’m not saying that this schema is the One True Way to discuss POV. In fact, I intend these categories to be a bit weird and vexatious, as a way to break up your assumptions about how POV works. Because bad assumptions are everywhere.

For example, I frequently see people saying, “First person present tense is a very immediate way to tell a story!” Which is crap. The grammar of a narrative and its distance are two different things.

Take this story opening:

The summer has been long and boiling, my body changing in ways I don’t understand yet, my mind tangling in those changes’ wake. So it’s a mystery how I first get the idea to set fire to the home of the only girl I’ve ever loved.

Yes, it’s in present tense and first person, but there’s an elegiac lilt to the language, a sense that everything has already taken place. The grammar doesn’t change that.

But let’s say you started the story this way:

It was a hot day, and Roger was bored and itchy.
“Let’s set fire to Cindy’s house,” he said.

This is in the past tense and third person, but it’s way more immediate, with the story happening in real time before our eyes. In other words, the grammar doesn’t determine distance. Far more important is the way the story is told.

Some of you might be saying, “But wouldn’t it be more immediate in present tense?” To which I say, Maybe a little, but please note that every single other difference between the two passages is more important.

My division of POV into four elements is a way to remind you of this fact, that there are no shortcuts to getting the right voice or distance or viewpoint. You never get to say, “I picked present tense, so my novel is awesome and intense!”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll go through each of the four elements in detail: viewpoint, grammar (person and tense), distance, and finally voice. For now, let’s start with viewpoint in its most basic form.

Single Limited Viewpoint
As I said above, viewpoint simply means where the information in a novel comes from.

Does it come from one character? From many? From an invisible camera that sees all (but doesn’t know what anyone’s thinking)? Is the narrator a bodiless entity of great wisdom who knows the future and the past? Or is the novel simply a compilation of documents found in an abandoned vault? (If so, who wrote them? Who compiled them?) Is the narrator a trickster, a liar, a mad person? Or a writer at a desk talking directly to you, the reader?

Or is the universe itself talking to you?

Over centuries of writing, writers have experimented with a dizzying range of viewpoints, allowing the novel to reinvent itself time and again. If you never experiment with viewpoint in your writing life, you will be a very boring writer indeed.

But let’s start simply, with single limited viewpoint.

In this mode, all the reader can ever learn is what one character experiences. You’ve read tons of books like this. My own Uglies series is one example. From the early twentieth century, SLV has become perhaps the dominant mode of the novel. Indeed, there are people out there who will tell you that this is the Only Correct Viewpoint. (They are benighted, tiny people. But they exist.)

Why is it so popular? Here’s my guess:

In the single limited viewpoint, readers bond very closely with one narrator. All we ever find out is what that person sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, thinks, believes, and knows. We’re living inside their head, so we can’t help but start to identify with their desires, needs, and opinions. This bonding process is what makes reading so immersive and transformative. It turns us into another person.

This is what keeps us up at night with a flashlight.

So how does it work?

I’m about to show you lots of examples. Unless otherwise noted, I’m just making these up on the fly. They aren’t great literature, but they’re not meant to be. They’re more like those plastic models of flowers at the science museum—they aren’t as lovely as real flowers, but they’re useful for showing you how stuff works.

Here we go:

Arnold frowned. “I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me.”

Behind him, a group of sailboats were gliding past on the bay. Maria watched their sails flutter and fill, trying to ignore the way his eyes flashed when he teased her.

“I was asking, um, if you wanted to get coffee?” A cool droplet of sweat crept down the inside of her arm.

After a long moment, the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face. It felt like daybreak.

“I like coffee,” he said.

Clearly, we are in Maria’s viewpoint here, not Arnold’s. We can see Arnold’s facial expressions and the boats behind him (which he presumably can’t see). We feel Maria’s sweat on her skin, and her emotions as well. When Arnold’s smile is “like daybreak,” that’s what it feels like to Maria, not to Arnold.

Importantly, we can’t see Maria. Unless she looks in a mirror (argh!) she’s mostly invisible to us.

But even invisible, she does know things about herself. Let’s continue a bit:

“I like coffee,” he said.

Maria smiled, straightening the cambric shirt she’d worn especially for Arnold. He’d said he liked the shirt—a month ago?—and she’d worn it often since. “Glad to hear that. I like coffee too.”

Maria doesn’t need a mirror to know she’s smiling, or what clothes she put on this morning. That information is in her head, so it’s available to us in single limited viewpoint. More important, we also know why she put on that shirt, because Maria knows why, and she’s just had a moment of self-consciousness about it.

Facial expressions can be tricky, because they can be sensed from the inside or seen from the outside. In first passage, I wrote, “the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face.” That wouldn’t work for Maria, because a “hint of a smile” is something perceived at from the outside. For a hinted smile in her own viewpoint, I might try something like: “Maria felt a smile playing at her lips, and swallowed it.”

See the difference?

When you’re writing in limited single viewpoint, every piece of information you put into the text—physical details, actions, mood, even the simplest background knowledge about the world—has to pass these tests: Does your viewpoint character know about this? Would your viewpoint character notice this? Does you viewpoint character have the capacity to understand this?

If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, then you have to leave that detail out.

In a way, the text of your novel becomes the viewpoint character. When they think or feel something, the reader doesn’t have to be told it’s the character thinking or feeling it; the character’s mind simply imbues the text. This is why we talk about limited viewpoint as “being in a character’s head.”

Let’s look at another example:

Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

If this were the first paragraph of a novel, we’d know right away that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint. This fact affects everything about the text. For example:

Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green . . .

The nasty color of the wall is Billy’s opinion, not objective reality. Also, the foulness of the green probably reflects his current mood more than any permanent opinion about the wall. (Some of you may recall how the protagonist’s bad mood informs the color of sky at the start of Uglies.)

And check this out:

[The wall] had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings.

Billy probably wasn’t there when the wall was painted. If he had been, the lazy painter would be a specific person, not “someone.” This laziness is Billy’s assumption, based on his observations in the present. But here’s the important part: even though Billy lives in this house, he’s noticing the sloppy paint job at this exact moment. His sulky mood has infected every detail of the room (and every detail of the text).

At this point, the reader might already be wondering why this guy is in such a crappy mood. And the text answers:

Behind [the wall], Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something.

Let’s assume Billy can’t see through walls, but he can recognize his parents’ voices. Note that the argument is “about something,” without specifics, which probably means the words are muffled. (It’s also possible that Billy doesn’t care about his parents’ arguments anymore, and so isn’t listening particularly hard.)

Also, notice that it’s just “Mom and Dad,” not “Billy’s mom and dad.” Even though this is third-person, it’s as if Billy is talking to us. We’re inside his brain, where Mom and Dad are pretty much their names.

Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

This prediction about the coming car trip is Billy’s best guess, based on his past experiences and his current crappy mood.

The cool thing is, the writer doesn’t have to explain that these are Billy’s observations and guesses and assumptions. Readers already know the conventions of limited viewpoint and understand that character and text are extensions of each other.

Look at what happens if we get rid of these assumptions:

Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a color of green that he found foul, apparently by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. From behind it came the muffled sounds of Billy’s mother and father screaming at each other. He sighed, guessing that it was going to be another dismal drive to his grandmother’s place.

This passage spells out the machinery of limited viewpoint, rather than just letting it happen. It makes for clumsy prose. Ironically, by constantly reminding us that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint, this language forces us out of Billy’s viewpoint.

Of course, the writer might not want to be so closely in Billy’s head, because he’s a minor character who’s about to die, or because it makes this scene too depressing. But you have to admit that second version is clunkier.

Let’s see what happens to the passage if Billy is a different sort of person. What he sees and hears may be exactly the same, and yet everything changes:

Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a mismatched forest green (Pantone 363?) by someone too barbaric to tape the moldings. Through the thin drywall came muffled screaming—the lord and lady of the house had been at it all morning. “Customers,” Billy sighed. It was going to be another tense morning of arguments over carpet samples and color swatches.

Meet Billy 2, an interior decorator. He’s more aware of color than Billy 1. For him, people who paint sloppily are demoted from “lazy” down to “barbaric.” Billy 2 casually identifies details of the wall’s construction. (Billy 1 might know what drywall is, but he probably wouldn’t think it.) Also note that Billy 2 isn’t as depressed as Billy 1. Your own parents fighting may be “dismal,” but your customers arguing is merely “tense.”

This is what makes limited viewpoints so powerful: everything changes when the observer changes. This means that we learn as much about a character by how they see reality as by their actions and choices. You don’t have to make your narrator look in an actual mirror, because the whole world becomes their mirror.

(Protip: never make your character look in an actual mirror.)

And now for an important aside. As I was so strenuously pointing out above, viewpoint is separate from person. In other words, all this stuff works exactly the same way in first-person as it does in third-person. Check this out:

I stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

That’s right. I change one word and this passage goes from third-person to first, from Billy’s viewpoint to “mine.” That’s what I meant about POV tools being interchangeable. (I’ll get back to first- and third-person in a later chapter. Just wanted to point out again that person is separate from viewpoint. I like repeating things. Repeating things is good. We learn through repetition!)

Let’s look at some more examples of how viewpoint informs text. Here’s the first of three characters witnessing a fighter jet fly past:

An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single engine, which threw those tons of metal up into the sky like so much thistledown.

Okay. What do we know about this character? They know a lot about fighter jets, clearly. In fact, one might say they love military aircraft, because the language of the passage reflects that affection.

Now let’s see the same event through the eyes of a non-enthusiast:

The fighter plane shot past, furiously loud and low to the ground, its metal skin mottled with gray and green. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, and a moment later it was gone.

See how all that technical info about engines and afterburners disappeared? Those facts are outside the knowledge base of the narrator. They can’t show up in this story without another character filling them in.

More important, the love is gone. This character has no great affection for fighter jets, so the poetry of the passage fades into more mere observation. So does that mean the first narrator is better, because they allow access to all the writer’s lovingly researched details?

Maybe not. As a reader opening a novel to that first passage, I’d be pretty certain that many cool airplane facts were in my future. This will thrill some readers; others will put the book down. In some ways that enthusiastic first character is also limited by their knowledge, because they can’t look at a jet plane without thinking of its technical specifications. Which might get old after a few hundred pages.

Also, sometimes a character who doesn’t know things is more interesting than one who does. Check out this version:

The sky was splitting, tearing open along the red horizon. The hills around Hera roared and shrieked, the earth itself shuddering in terror. A shape caught her nervous eyes for a moment—a knife hurtling through the air. But then with a furious bellow, it disappeared into the sky, leaving only a sharp scent behind, like the tar pits when lightning had set them burning.

This passage is clearly describing the same event, but there’s nothing about airplanes. That’s weird.

If this were the first paragraph of a novel, the reader might not even realize what was going on. But Hera isn’t stupid or unobservant. In fact, she noticed something the other narrators missed: the lingering scent of expended jet fuel, which smells like . . . a tar pit?

Of course! This is one of those books where a stone-age woman travels through time and sees a jet fighter. (Or maybe the jets have gone back to hunt mastodons. Yeah, I’m going with that.) As such, Hera lacks any frame of reference for what a jet is. She barely understands that all this sound and fury is caused by a flying object. To her, it’s more like the sky is shaking itself apart. It might take a few scenes for the reader to grasp what these noisy sky-things are. (Of course, the cover would probably show jets shooting at mastodons. But let’s just ignore that.)

Having a viewpoint character who’s thrown out of their usual frame of reference can be a glorious thing. In speculative fiction, characters often find themselves in other eras, on other planets, or facing revelations of magic hidden beneath the surface of the everyday world. The narrator who steps through a portal and doesn’t know what’s going on is a great stand-in for the reader, because everything is new and shiny to them. They’re being introduced to the novel’s alternate world at the same time the reader is.

So which do you choose? A narrator who knows a little? A lot? Nothing at all?

Partly it depends on how much of your story depends on technical details. If you’re telling a story about someone stealing a stealth fighter, an expert narrator is probably the way to go. If you’re making the point that modern technology has godlike potential to do damage to the world, maybe it’s better to show it from a stone-age hunter’s perspective than a jet pilot’s.

Repeat this before bed each night in November: The meaning of a story is molded by the eyes we show it through.

Another key is consistency. In other words, don’t cheat. You have to stick with what your character knows, or have them learn new things in a reasonable time frame. If you have a narrator suddenly remember the dragon-slaying class they took in high school or that time they learned ancient Greek, you bounce your reader out of the protagonist’s head.

And a broken viewpoint is a broken novel. (< -Also repeat this daily.) Of course, knowledge isn't the only thing that makes people who they are. Characters are also their beliefs, assumptions, and politics. In other words, their worldview. Let's go back to the non-expert character watching the jet, with some edits:

The fighter plane shot past, its metal skin mottled gray and green, so furiously loud and low to the ground that I feared it would crash. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.

The big change here isn’t knowledge, it’s attitude. For this character, contour-hugging maneuvers are unfamiliar and scary, which makes them nervous for the safety of the pilot. And they can’t watch a display of military hardware without thinking of the social costs. The poetry of the aircraft enthusiast has been replaced by an acid tone.

Our beliefs—political, religious, and ethical—are the lenses through which we see the world. These parts of a character’s personality inform the text just as much as their knowledge, mood, and senses.

On top of which, people are complicated. One last jet flyover:

An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single J79 engine. Those tons of metal were thrown up into the sky like so much thistledown, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.

Plot twist! This character both loves the charismatic fury of military aircraft and hates their social and economic costs. (Urban legend: The conflict is coming from inside the house!) This is why single limited can be so powerful, because a character’s inner struggle can imbue the language of the novel itself.

It’s up to the writer to put all this together. With every sentence, you have to remember the constraints of your character’s senses, the colors of their mood, the extent and zeal of their knowledge base, and the repercussions of their beliefs and principles.

It’s not easy. But if you do your job well, readers don’t just bond with your narrator, they become them. They start noticing the same details, feeling the same anxieties, and even dreaming the same dreams.

That’s how novels change the way that people see the world.

So why don’t we write every novel in single limited viewpoint? Given that YA lit is so concerned with the teenage experience, surely this kind of immersive storytelling is what we should be aiming for.

Here’s the problem: The greatest strength of single limited viewpoint is also its greatest drawback. Because we’re so closely aligned with one character, our experiences are limited to theirs. As a writer, you’re trapped with one pair of eyes. This limits how many events the reader can witness first-hand, and how much you can reveal of the world you’ve created.

If you want to show how the awesome plumbing system of Dwarf Castle works, you’ll have to make your narrator a dwarven plumbing expert. (Um, yay.) If there are exciting things happening in two places at the same time, your reader only gets to witness one of them. If a serial killer is secretly stalking the narrator, the reader won’t know this—and will feel zero suspense—until the narrator finds out about it. (And then it’s not secret stalking anymore, is it?)

But the biggest constraint of the single limited viewpoint is not of senses or knowledge, but of belief. Your text is trapped within a single set of assumptions, a single ethical framework. A character’s beliefs may change over time, but you can’t show both sides of an issue at once.

Those of you who’ve read my Leviathan books, try to imagine them with only a Clanker perspective, and no Darwinist characters, or vice versa. The whole point of the series would vanish. With single limited viewpoint, you never get a first-hand look at what it’s like to be the bad guy. You may never discover that from a different perspective, all that badness was completely justified. And don’t forget that about half the YA audience is teenagers, who have been known to question authority. They are open to the idea that truth doesn’t flow from single well.

So sometimes you have to bust out of this single-character thing.

In the next post, I’ll talk about multiple-character viewpoints.

Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”
Click here to read Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

11 thoughts on “Single Limited Viewpoint

  1. Awesome, as always! I’m getting really excited for this How To Write YA book! Is there a release date for it yet (read: can I get it for Christmas)?

  2. This is way more detailed then any description of viewpoint I’ve ever been taught before.

  3. Roxanne said:
    “Is there a release date for it yet (read: can I get it for Christmas)?”

    Not sure yet, but I’m trying for March 2015. So no Xmas presents. Sorry!

  4. Thank you, Mr Westerfeld, this was an interesting “piece” of advice. I wouldn’t say I’m a writer myself but, well.. I’m a writer myself. Just a very amateur and “unpublished” one. I’m fascinated by your writing and the intelligent way your books are constructed. Really looking forward to “How to write YA”. Even if it won’t be translated into Hungarian – which I suppose it won’t – I’ll get it one way or another.

    I also have a request: could I translate this post and put it on my blog? Under your name, of course. I just want your thoughts to be available for people who don’t neccessarily speak English.

    I’m currently reading Afterworlds now, from which I’ve learned something… is it really better, if I praise a book without that much hype? Because in that case, I LOVED Peeps, and I mean that! 🙂

    With lots of respect,


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