Writing Tips: Point-of-View and Switching Characters

One of the more difficult things to talk about when it comes to writing, in my opinion at least, is point-of-view.  Though the concept itself is pretty easily grasped, it’s also a major one that gets brushed off as unimportant in a lot of cases.  Particularly for writers who write their stories by instinct, the point-of-view is something that happens naturally depending on what they’re going for.  Unfortunately, this can often result in the point-of-view being written poorly.

However, of particular note for today’s tips, we’re going to focus in on stories where the point-of-view is limited, but the limited view is switched between various characters.  Now for some who aren’t avid readers, this may seem like a foreign concept to a degree.  There are numerous contemporary stories that use limited view, but they only ever focus on the protagonist.  However, there are indeed still others where it utilizes specific viewpoints of different characters to show different aspects of the story (Game of Thrones is one example).

Why this particular subject, though?  In my opinion, it is perhaps the one that poses the most risk to poor writing, as characters are often the driving force of a story.  As such, messing up how these viewpoint switches occur can quickly turn readers off.  There are ways to prevent this though, which is my goal for today: tips on how you can make sure you’re able to switch characters successfully.  Please keep in mind there are numerous things to watch out for, but these are the areas I believe one should be most concerned with.

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  1. For low risk switches, establish the character you want to switch to before they become the focus.

Imagine this scenario: you’ve followed hero Billy-bob for a while, and as the chapter/scene/etc. comes to an end, the story switches focus to Princess Bobweed, whom you’ve never seen before ever in the story.  I’ll wait a moment while you imagine this.

….

..

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Now hopefully you realize one thing: this is going to be extremely jarring.  As a reader, you would have no attachment to Princess Bobweed, her desires, what her role is in Billy-bob’s world, etc..  In the end, she is an unknown character.  While new characters are good in a lot of occasions, the problem is via the fact she would become the main emotional focus.  Everything about the story would be filtered through her character essentially (whether first person or third person), and feel like it was destabilizing things that were established with Billy-bob.  Thus, readers would be compelled to want to go back to Billy-bob instead of learn about this new character.

So, in order to overcome this matter, one low risk maneuver a writer can utilize is to establish the character before they are switched to.  In the above scenario, the best course of action would be to have Billy-bob interact with Princess Bobweed.  Perhaps the two strike a deal and while Billy-bob is killing the dragon, Princess Bobweed will sneak in the back and take the magic mirror that is her family heirloom.  The interaction would, of course, have to be pretty meaty and give Princess Bobweed some good established character (sympathetic motivations, personality, etc.).  However, in so doing, if the viewpoint switched to her as she retrieved, it would feel extremely natural.  Instead of focusing on the fact that Billy-bob was no longer the filter, the reader would be enticed by the intrigue to see whether Princess Bobweed’s attempts are successful or if something she does endangers Billy-bob.  However, in their intrigue, the reader learns more about Princess Boboweed, so subsequent switches are much easier since she becomes a known character.

Keep in mind, again, that one must establish the character well in order for this work.  In otherwords, a few page scene where the characters just say a few words to each other is not enough.  One must establish why the reader should care about the future viewpoint character.  This way, when the switch occurs, the reader has an identifiable goal to root for in regards to that character.  Regardless, though, establishing the character before switching viewpoints to them is often the safest route to ensure that readers aren’t pushed away from your story.

 

  1. For high risk switches, provide something that immediately makes the character sympathetic and interesting.

Let’s say, in the above scenario, you decide that you want to take the high risk of just switching to Princess Bobweed anyway.  Perhaps the plot demands that Billy-bob and Princess Bobweed establish themselves as heroes before they’re put together as a team.  It is possible to do this, but one must keep in mind a few things.

First off, and a matter that will be discussed more in the next point, don’t spend too much time on Billy-bob so that the reader becomes overly attached to him.

Second, if you choose to switch like this, you must be prepared to make the character you switch to immediately interesting and sympathetic.  Perhaps, when the reader first meets Princess Bobweed, it’s as she’s being exiled from her kingdom by her evil uncle.  As she’s leaving, maybe she comments that Billy-bob’s hometown, Timber Town, will be the first to fall under her uncle’s terrible and ruthless rule.  Then, she declares she won’t stand for it.  By providing these elements, the reader is not only given a connection to Billy-bob, whom they care about, but also see that Princess Bobweed has sympathetic motivations to taking her kingdom back from a tyrant.

The point of this method is to make the character you switch to be just as interesting as the protagonist(s) you’ve already established as a viewpoint character.  This way, even if the scenario is a bit jarring, the reader will be intrigued enough to continue with the story.  Of course, as you may have noticed, in that scenario I added a brief connecting point to Billy-bob.  This another way by which you can make the switch smoother, since giving the reader something familiar to grasp onto helps them switch more easily.  Again, this is a method that’s higher risk, but it is possible to be executed well.

 

  1. Make it clear the point-of-view is going to switch.

Briefly, let’s talk about when to switch.  While for some this might seem obvious, it is worth stating none-the-less.  When you switch can be equally important as how.  In this respect, there are two things in particular to watch out for.

Of the more obvious, you should always make sure the switch occurs at a notable end.  A notable end, in this case, can mean the end of a chapter or the end of a scene (it truly depends on the media).  Either way, the flow of a scene should be closing out the main focus before the reader is transported to a different character.  Think about how awkward it would be if in the middle of Billy-bob swinging his sword, we switched to Princess Bobweed’s feelings on watching him.  Though some action sequences could get away with this, in most cases one needs to make sure to not disrupt the flow of action unless there can be an appropriate time gap.

The less obvious matter to watch out for is to make sure you don’t wait too long to start switching characters.  Let’s return to our usual scenario again for a moment for a new hypothetical.  You’ve gone on adventures with Billy-bob for half a book and seen him slay 5 of the 8 great dragons.  He’s met with Princess Bobweed some, but for this first half of the book the limited viewpoint has been entirely Billy-bob.  Then, suddenly, in the second half of the book there’s a brief scene where the reader is limited to Princess Bobweed’s viewpoint.

Even though Princess Bobweed was even established in this case, the fact her viewpoint came out of the blue is going to jar the reader just as much as failing the above points.  Though one can add the amount of characters to switch to later on, it is far wiser to make it clear early on that these switches may occur (even if infrequent).  In so doing, the reader can at least expect them and not wonder if they’d suddenly entered a spin-off story.

 

 

Through these tips, I hope I have established enough of a foundation to make switching viewpoints easier.  Though it can backfire quickly, it is often a great boon to a story to allow the reader different limited viewpoints.   Of course, as with all my tips, there are numerous other ways you can go about writing.  This includes switching the point-of-view.  However, I feel with these tips in hand, one will have some guidelines through which they can analyze their works.  Whether you write novels, comics, visual novels, or anything else, I hope you keep these matters in mind and write a successful, well-flowing story.

 

Image by LouAnna on Pixabay.

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