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While researching (not procrastinating, honest) the other day, I came across an interview with Margo:

BWI: How do you choose your viewpoint character? In some stories, that answer is obvious (the viewpoint is through the only character who is present for all the action), but in some stories you seem to choose a character outside the main action, a character who isn't even the protagonist.

ML: Often the viewpoint character is the person who is either doing the thinking about what's happening, or who will be most changed or formed by the events. Sometimes, as in "Singing My Sister Down" he's too young to think very coherently about what's happening, but the events mark the point where he starts questioning the way his world is organised. I often use observer characters because a protagonist:

  • is so caught up in the action that she can't consider it in a wider context,
  • can't see how people around her are being affected by, or reacting to, her behaviour, or
  • is just not capable of the same kind of reflection as the observer is.

I've been worrying, in a niggling and nagging sort of way, because I have a habit of choosing outsider characters. Witnesses rather than action-oriented individuals. In my social justice/blinding story at Clarion, I chose Michael as the narrator, even though Alice is the one effecting all the changes. I even, the night before the story was due, considered rewriting it to make Alice the viewpoint character. But I decided against it, for no reason I could pin down at the time except that it felt right to have Michael as the viewpoint because he was judging the action unfolding before him where Alice was not.

And now, reading the interview, I feel suddenly quieter inside. Of course the narrator doesn't have to be the protagonist, and I can't put the reasons any more succinctly than Margo has. For action-focussed stories, the narrator can be the protagonist because that brings more immediacy. But for commentary stories, for thinking stories, it's okay to separate the roles into different characters. (Of course, for a novel any character can fulfil either or both roles at any single time, simply because novels have more space for the characters and narrative alike.)

I knew that woman rocked.

One thought on “Outsiders

  1. Reading this I suddenly realized an odd thought, specifically thinking of some of the Dickens books where he used first person narration (David Copperfield and Great Expectations springing to immmediate mind). They oddly fit, because I think you could make an argument that the narrator and the protagonist are not the same. In Great Expectations, say, it is the older, wiser, humbler Pip who is the narrator, while the protagonist is, well, not him, really. It's the younger him, arrogant and cocky and ungrateful. And so you get the outsider commentary, really, even though it's superficially the "same" person. He does pretty much the same thing in David Copperfield, though for different effects. And that, of course, makes me eyeball all first person narration and wonder how much you can — indeed, maybe have to — separate the character as protag and the character as POV.

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