Monday, 15 April 2013

Multiple Viewpoints

I recently read an excellent novel called The Catch by Tom Bale. Tom is one of the undiscovered gems of UK thriller writing.  

Such was the brilliance of the writing, I campaigned to my editor at to make Tom Bale our Author of the Month for April. He duly got that honour and my review and interview may be found here. 

The novel focuses on a tired friendship and moral choices and uses multiple viewpoints to tell the story. As my own humble work in progress uses multiple viewpoints I was keen to seek the author’s opinion. So here it is. 

Everyone’s got a point of view. That might be true in life, but not always in fiction – and the matter of perspective is one of the most important decisions that a writer has to make. 

It was Graham’s recent question on the subject that made me appreciate how strong my preference is for writing in the third person with multiple viewpoints. Even as a reader, I have to confess that I sometimes recoil if I pick up a book and see it’s written in the first person. The story has to be all the more compelling to overcome my reluctance to spend an entire novel inside the mind of just one character. 

After all, if prose fiction has a unique selling point, surely it’s that it allows the writer to convey what his or her characters are thinking? We can explore their deepest fears, secrets and desires in a way that’s simply not possible in other forms of storytelling: cinema, theatre, gaming and so on. 

And if you have the ability to reveal that inner dialogue, why limit it to only one or two characters? I tend to like populating my stories with a large cast, so it seems natural to explore the viewpoint of most, if not all, of my main characters. It certainly helps to enrich the story – and in crime fiction in particular, I think it’s a lot easier to create complex antagonists if you can explore their motivations and reveal their psychological make-up. 

Switching viewpoints helps to keep the story fresh and interesting. Adding the viewpoint of a minor player can be a great way of providing insight into the main characters. In my novel BLOOD FALLS there’s a character called Vic Smith who only appears in two chapters, and yet quite a few readers have mentioned the impact made by his little cameo role. 

But for all my love of multiple viewpoints, there’s one strict rule that I try to adhere to: no head-hopping. That’s when we’re privy to one character’s thoughts in one sentence or paragraph, and another character’s in the next. Not only is it confusing, but it also has a strangely unsettling effect, jolting the readers out of the story. Far better, I think, to use scene breaks to denote a change of viewpoint, much as a filmmaker will switch between cameras to tell a story from different perspectives. Used effectively, it’s a device that can bring your characters to life as vivid, three-dimensional people. 

Massive thanks from me to Tom for this post. 

April is the month for guest posts so here is the line-up to date. 

22nd – Matt Hilton

29th  - Howard Linskey

To follow later in the year

Tom Cain / David Thomas Guest Blog

Lee Child Interview


  1. Can't tell you how very glad I am to read this endorsement of large casts and multiple viewpoints - heartening indeed. (But in support of those who write in first person, I thoroughly recommend Declan Hughes' Ed Loy novels - writing to get high with.)
    Thank you Graham and Tom Bale.

  2. "I recoil if I pick up a book and see it’s written in the first person" no Charlotte Brontë. Raymond Chandler, Damon Runyon, Robert B Parker, much of Dickens & Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Patricia Cornwell, Matt Hilton.....
    Of course there are all kinds of options, personally I get a little bored with the omniscient narrator who's privy to the thoughts and feelings of everyone in a book...seems unrealistic, since we have to infer these things from the actions we observe in real life.
    I don't recoil from 3rd person stuff, if it's well done. Anyway, one of the first crime novels in English used the multiple POV's called "The Moonstone"

  3. I do read - and enjoy - novels written in the first person (Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL being a recent example) but, as I say above, my preference is for third person. I wouldn't argue for a minute that some of the greatest writers who ever lived had the opposite preference. It also depends on the story, as well - some suit 1st person, some 3rd. In short fiction, especially, first person can be very effective.

  4. I think there's an argument for both POV extremes, and those in between, but ultimately it has to be about good writing. Personally, I also prefer the less restricted third person omniscient approach, as long as it's not overcooked.

    Good post.


  5. Interesting post for me, because it is something, as a reader and writer, that I have had cause to reflect on recently.
    I have just read Chris Ewan’s, Safe House, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I came to realise that I had a massive problem with my overall enjoyment of the story. The author has mixed first person and third person omnipresent narrator throughout the book and this did not work for me at all.
    I can suspend my disbelief for all manner of genres and story-lines, but switching the narrative voice like this left me feeling very unfulfilled and thinking uncharitable thoughts about the author. I could go on to say why, but then I might become critical of the author with what is essentially just my opinion - maybe not something for here.
    Multiple viewpoints in the third person I can do. Reading the thoughts of characters I can do. But reading was is essentially a recount of the central protagonist and then learning of things happening somewhere else through a third person narrator that the first person narrator would have absolutely no idea about? No. It strikes me as a writing sin.
    It’s the first book of this nature that I have read and while I would read Chris Ewan again I would not knowingly read another book written like that.