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Choosing a Viewpoint Character

October 23, 2012

Writing books usually advise beginners to stick to one viewpoint character to build a connection between that character and the reader. But within that directive there are still many difficult choices. What’s more compelling: the intimacy of a first person narrator or the more distant perspective of a third person or omniscient narrator?

In her new book, The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling spins the tale of the divided town of Pagford from the perspective of more than a dozen main characters. The most likeable, Barry Fairbrother, dies almost immediately. Rowling charts the reactions to Fairbrother’s death by switching from head to head to provide the viewpoints of his wife, friends, enemies and even strangers. The initial introductions to each character are brief and everyone is almost uniformly yet uniquely troubled. Other than the dead man, there is no obvious Harry Potter hero. In fact, many of the characters are so flawed that spending time in their heads and lives is distinctly painful.

But by moving the reader from viewpoint to unflinching viewpoint, JK Rowling crafts a portrait of the community as a living entity, with each life enmeshed in all the others. The story circles deeper and deeper into the hidden recesses of the history and habits of each of the characters. Events spin faster and soon the reader can’t look away from pompous Howard Mollison, chillingly self-centred Fats Wall or the tragic Krystal Weedon. Rowling forces us to inhabit their lives until we finally realize the truth of the old adage, “Nothing that is human is alien to me.” We are looking into mirrors of our own flawed selves. In the end, like Sukhvinder, Andrew, Gaia, Parminder and at least some of their friends and family, we learn to regard each other with just a little more compassion.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 23, 2012 9:34 pm

    The fastest way to turn an antagonist into a protagonist is to present from his/her point of view. I’m convinced that’s because as humans, we are all ultimately flawed.

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