The Protagonist and the Viewpoint

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Adventures of KM&G-Morris (Flickr/CC)

With the chronology, character maps and theme written down, we now have everything we need to tell us what the story is. Now we’re going to move on to the question of how to tell it. By the time I get to this stage, I usually have a pretty good idea already but it’s still worth a few moments’ though to make sure I really am making the best choices. The evolution of the chronology and characters may mean that my earlier ideas are no longer the best, or I may be lazily following a default idea, which is no better than using a cliché.

The first choice is to make sure I have the right characters in the right places. The protagonist is the character the story is primarily about. The viewpoint, often referred to as the point of view or PoV, is the character from whose perspective the story will be told. In most cases, the protagonist and the viewpoint are one and the same but there are exceptions.

Passive protagonists need not apply

The key feature of the protagonist is that she must protagonise. That doesn’t mean she needs to be kicking in doors and barking orders from the first line. It’s often external events that push the protagonist into action. That’s the case for all four of my stories I keep referring to, and probably most stories you’ve ever read. What it means is that the protagonist must drive the resolution through her decisions and actions. She cannot rely on a solution dropping out of nowhere, or mope around in emotional description while things go on around her. I’ve done enough critiquing to see plenty of both of those approaches, and I can see exactly why the editors don’t like them.

Street Photography (CC/Flickr)

Just because the protagonist’s actions drive the resolution does not necessarily mean they have to bring about the resolution she intended. In fact, it rather dilutes the tension if everything works out as planned because it gives the impression that things can’t have been that difficult. The protagonist’s actions may have exactly the opposite effect than that intended. Bruce Bethke’s Cyberpunk is a genre-defining story where the resolution is driven by backfiring plans. I’ll spare you the spoilers, it’s a short read.

What matters is that the protagonist has been making decisions and acting on them. Until she does that, we have no idea who she really is. All the inner dialogue and emotional description in the world can only tell us who she thinks she is. We need to see her in action to know whether she’s got herself right.

Should the protagonist be the viewpoint?

Given that the story is about the protagonist, the protagonist is the default option for the viewpoint. Usually that’s the right choice. However, some protagonists may be so larger than life that they are more believable if described by a bystander. The classic case is Moby Dick, but there are some more digestible examples around. Edgar Allen Poe used the technique in his Auguste Dupin stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter, in which the machinations of a brilliant mind are documented by a loyal friend. Arthur Conan Doyle used the technique when he had Dr Watson narrate his Sherlock Holmes stories, showing that great writers copy as much as anybody. Other examples would be CS Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower, narrated from the viewpoint of Hornblower’s friend William Bush, and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the latter case, I do mean the book and not the film. George Peppard’s aggressively heterosexual version of Fred was not the character Capote wrote.

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দেবর্ষি রায় (CC/Flickr)

With the exception of Hornblower, none of the protagonists have personalities that lend themselves to self-examination. Viewing them through the eyes of a secondary character allowed the authors to insert commentary that wouldn’t have been consistent with the viewpoint of the protagonist.

One difficulty with separating protagonist and the viewpoint is that although the story is not about the viewpoint, they still need to be present at all the events of the story. All the examples above placed the viewpoint and protagonist in close physical proximity. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, ‘Fred’ and Holly Golightly rent apartments in the same building, which is as much separation as a viewpoint and protagonist can bear. In the other cases, the authors crammed the two of them into the same flat or the same ship so they couldn’t get away from each other.

Whether or not the protagonist and the viewpoint are the same individual, a short story only has space for one of each. Novels allow space for more characters to be developed, but it’s a good rule to keep a short story focused on one person’s story. It’s a rule I drove a truck through with Cassandra’s Cargo, which has two viewpoints, one of whom is the protagonist. The subject of rules and how to creatively break them is for another day, but suffice it to say that I had to convince myself that the story simply could not be told any other way before I risked it.


Exercise:

For each of the stories you have so far, decide who is the protagonist and the viewpoint. Are they the same person?

Now ask whether the protagonist’s decisions drive the resolution of the story, and whether the viewpoint is actually there at all the important points of the story. If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, revise the chronology until it is ‘yes’.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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