Monday, August 13, 2012

When the Viewpoint Character is Not the Protagonist

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Even if you don't write in the fantastical genres, Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is an excellent writing book for writers of all stages. It was the first book on writing I ever read, and the one I refer to the most.

Card offers three guidelines for choosing a viewpoint character who isn't the protagonist, such as in The Great Gatsby or Wild Seed:

  1. The viewpoint character must be present at the main events.
  2. The viewpoint character must be actively involved in those events, not always a chance witness (such as Watson from Sherlock Holmes).
  3. The viewpoint character must have a personal stake in the outcome, even though the outcome depends on the main character's choices.
Card also has a book entitled Character and Viewpoint, which dives deeper into this topic.

What about you? Have you even written something where the viewpoint character and the protagonist were separate? I never have, but it's a challenge worth considering!


  1. Card's How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy was the first book on writing that I ever read. I was in fifth grade. It was my mom's book, but I referred kept it in my room and referred to it all the way through high school. Unfortunately, I had to give it back when I left for college. I definitely learned a lot from it, though.

    I've never written from the POV of a person who wasn't the protagonist, but I'm willing to give it a shot. I just need to wait for the right story to come along.

  2. This is interesting to me, because that's actually what I'm doing with my current WIP. It's one of the few thoughts that actually has gotten my creative juices working lately, and I've even started writing an introduction!

  3. I like the idea of writing a story where the first-person character THINKS he's the center of the story, but in truth the story going on is really centered around somebody else.
    I tried doing this in Quarter and it was fun; it deceives both the characters and the reader until the bitter end, when you realize what was REALLY going on.
    Writing a book where the viewpoint character is 100% not the protagonist would be tricky, though, because then you have the "passive main character" problem. But hey, it can be done correctly.

  4. I've never tried it, but it sounds fun and challenging. :)

  5. I've written short scenes where the character was someone other than the MCs, but never a whole work like that. Still - interesting post. Kudos! :)

  6. I have, but only in scenes in short stories where I wanted to ratchet up sexual tension by using a viewpoint character as a kind of voyeur to a sexual act.

  7. No, I don't think I ever have. It would be an interesting experiment, but I think I might get frustrated with the limitations.

  8. That would be an awesome challenge to undertake. I haven't had that opportunity, yet, but I'd like to try it once.

  9. I generally have multiple viewpoint characters because the "main" character is never in all the scenes. That's not the same thing.

    Doing what you suggest above is almost omnicient narrator--someone who's watching the action and commenting on it but not really a main character. The Great Gatsby is one, and another would be Moby Dick. To Kill a Mockingbird as well. There's another one on the tip of my tongue (so to speak) but it's not popping at the moment.

    My muse (i.e., my sister) has one where the POV is a child. The events are adult, but people keep trying to convince her that the book is middle grade because of the narrator's age.