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God View Or Slob View?

One of the most fundamental choices an author faces is the point of view of his story. First person narration, or behind the eyes of one or more characters. In fantasy and SF, behind the eyes is a popular choice. Harry doesn’t narrate the story, but we only see what he sees, we only know what he knows. The Hobbits live away from the main action of the story, so it’s all new to them. We discover Fangorn, Gondor, Rohan as complete unknowns, which we couldn’t do if Aragorn or Gandalf were the viewpoint characters. This also allows us to find the fantastic elements as impressive as possible. If we were seeing things from Dumbledore’s point of view, we would find the magic mundane, unimpressive.

However, sometime, especially in an SF setting, all the characters know something that the reader isn’t to find out straight away. In such a case, it’s not really possible to sit behind the eyes. Failure to tell the reader what the viewpoint character knows is dishonest. The reader will probably be annoyed. Strangely enough, it is easier to hide things with first person narration. The narrator won’t tell us things about his world, not because she wishes to conceal them, but because they are too obvious to mention. This is a difficult trick to pull off in a satisfactory way – though it’s fun when it works.

The alternative is to step back from the characters. This can be done in two ways. One is to assume God mode. The author knows everything that is going on, what is going to happen, what the characters are thinking and feeling, how the world works. The reader is informed of this as he goes along. This is the method used, for example, in the seminal, though unreadable, Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback. As we go along, we are told in enormous detail who each character is, what their role in the world is, and what they are thinking. In the case of Ralph, this has the unfortunate effect of making the entire story, for all its imagination, excruciatingly boring.

The other method is to let the reader be an eavesdropper to the action. He sits in a corner of the room, watches the characters talking, sees how they behave – but nobody explains anything to him. He will be entirely lost at first, and the trick becomes to leave just enough clues to leave him interested.

It’s very easy to get this wrong, of course. When characters are talking, there will be things they know but wouldn’t normally talk about. With first person narration, this is easy. She can just tell us whatever we need to know. However, this has the problem that we feel aggrieved when she fails to tell us something we obviously need to know. Whenever you’re writing from the point of view of the invisible observer, you need to figure out what scenes he should be looking at, so that he knows just enough, but not too much.

I’ve been finding that this is the technical challenge I find most interesting. It’s not for every story – it’s emotionally distancing, in many ways. However, it seems that when I get it right – when the observer in the corner knows just what I want him to know – then it’s the most satisfying for me.

Leave a comment


  1. Write your stories, not about why you cannot!

    Get into the flow!

  2. Great post! Loved it!


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