How important is it to choose the right point of view character?
Have you ever read a scene in a story and thought it would be better told from the other person’s viewpoint? Have you found yourself skipping pages because a minor character’s story was more interesting than the main character’s? Have you ever given up on a scene because the writer head hopped, i.e. changed the viewpoint from one character to another, so frequently or between two characters, who were so similar, you lost sight of who was narrating? Have you ever become exasperated because a character starts behaving so oddly they’ve lost credibility?
Choosing the right point of view character is one of the most important choices a writer has to make.
The narrating character is the one who will keep the reader’s attention and compel them to read on. You might want to start a story with the protagonist but then find there are elements of the backstory that need to be told by a different character, particularly if your protagonist is an unreliable narrator. Your readers might find your unreliable narrator distances them from the story because they’re not sure what to believe or the story is hard work to follow so might prefer the sections from the minor character’s viewpoint. In one piece of fiction I read, the main character met a minor character who was no more than a plot device to push the main character into changing his course of action. There was no description of the minor character or explanation as to how they had reached the point where they met the main character. However, my speculation about the minor character made him more interesting than the main character. It wasn’t helped by the writer who had put the minor character into a life or death situation whereas the main character merely had to rekindle a relationship.
Your protagonist might be entirely unsympathetic so you might use a secondary character as a narrator. How many detective stories are told from the viewpoint of a secondary, usually junior, detective because the lead investigator is bad tempered, thin skinned and impossible to like? Does Sherlock Holmes’ enduring appeal come from his genius, or the way that Watson narrates him?
If the protagonist is the villain, your story may be a huge opportunity to explore the villain’s motivations and whatever set them on their dark path, but it may be difficult to get the reader to sympathise with them. A way round this may be to have some scenes from the hero’s viewpoint. However, good characters can be less interesting and the readers may prefer to follow the villain. If your story relies on the villain’s identity being kept secret from the reader, they may become frustrated and lose interest if they don’t know who the narrator is.
Characters are not fixed. During a story, a leading character will undertake an emotional journey either by learning how to solve the problem they have to overcome or discovering something new about themselves. An insecure, timid character may become forceful under the right circumstances. A confident, reckless character might become shaky and uncertain if they are forced to confront the consequences of their actions. However, your shy, timid character is not going to enter a dark, haunted house in a wood with no phone signal. Your confident, reckless character is not going to turn down the opportunity to gamble.
Occasionally a character might behave strangely because the writer’s not done their research. I don’t want to get pulled into the rabbit hole of whether men can write women and vice versa. Personally, I don’t think it matters if the writer isn’t the same gender as their character. What matters is that the character is fully-rounded and credible. Internet search engines make research fairly easy so there’s no excuse for a writer not to know how a pregnant character’s body changes or that if you have a character use a tampon in chapter one but don’t mention her changing it or don’t mention it at all throughout the rest of the story, she will be dead of toxic shock syndrome by the end of the novel. The fact that she survived was a huge disappointment as her potential demise became the only reason I read more than the first few chapters.
If your point if view character changes, it has to come through motivation to be credible. A timid mother may go into the haunted house to rescue a child. A reckless character may turn down the opportunity to gamble if they need to impress someone else. If your characters behave bizarrely for no reason, you will lose your reader’s trust and interest. If your plot requires your character to behave strangely, you might have the wrong narrator.
In a first draft, the priority is to get the story down. Once you have a draft, you can decide who is best placed to tell this story. Some stories may need more than one narrator but make sure your readers can follow who is narrating which part of the story. Typically the best narrator is the one who has to solve the problem at the opening of your story. If a story gets stuck or a character becomes incredible, chances are it’s the choice of point of view character that’s at fault.