Not Breaking Viewpoint


I listened to this podcast from Writing Excuses the other day, and found it fascinating: World building without breaking viewpoint. I often think about how I can explain bits about my world without breaking the viewpoint of my characters.

First, if I’m writing in first person or very close third, it’s a lot harder to justify describing and explaining bits about my created worlds. Why would a character who lived in it all their lives take notice of these things? To them its natural and how things are, so how do I incorporate details without it breaking that sense of character?

One route people go is by introducing a foreigner or outsider into the environment, which the characters interact with or help on their journey. This outsider to the world may even be the main character, thus allowing us to really describe how this world differs from our own in stark detail. This is why in fantasy, stories of people being whisked away to foreign worlds is so common. It makes it easy to deal with the integration of world build details into the storyline without it coming across as forced or out of character.

If the character already lives in the world, much of what may seem strange to us would be natural for them, thus the above technique wouldn’t be applicable to this type of story. This is where the above podcast is so incredibly useful. Writing excuses discusses in depth multiple techniques to integrate world building without breaking the viewpoint, and a lot of them are subtle and rather brilliant methods. Go listen and explore some of their methods. A lot of them are fairly brilliant.

Some of the techniques I use is based upon the point of view I choose. If I choose a somewhat more omniscient point of view, this gives me a lot more freedom to describe things than if I were to use first person or third person limited. However, omniscient can be very hard to pull off due to the tendency for the piece to feel a lot like head-hopping, if the switches to other characters are done too often, it can feel a bit like whiplash for a reader and make it harder for them to keep track of who sees and knows what. Omniscient allows you to have access to all the possible viewpoints for that story, but it may be a good idea, if you decide to use this, to decide what point of views are the most important for telling this story, and then find a way to incorporate those POVs into a steam-lined and less jarring narrative.

One way I use omniscient is by writing an entire scene from each character’s perspective, and then weaving them together. Sometimes it’s easier to place them side by side, giving you multitude of differing perspectives on a single event. Sometimes it’s possible to weave observations of each into a seamless narrative of that event, rather than going through the entirety of each. It depends on what I’m writing and what method feels the most seamless and natural. It does take a bit of experimenting and a lot of feedback, especially if I’m integrating world building aspects into the narrative as well.

Limited third person is harder in the sense that it can be very easy to break viewpoint (first person is similar in difficulty due to this same reason). You have to filter everything that happens through one character’s experience — what they don’t know, the reader cannot know either. When it comes to revealing world-building information, this can be just as challenging since you need to find a way for the character to experience that aspect of their world in a way for the reader to understand that this is not Earth but some other world. One way around this is when the character takes a moment to breathe during or after a crisis and tries to think things through. In moments like these, if the characters tends to be fairly contemplative, then they may take the moment to just observe the details of their surroundings and give themselves time to calm down before they try to solve or end the crisis. We all do this to some extent, where we need to re-center ourselves, or withdraw from a heated discussion in order to gather our thoughts and find a way to recreate dialogue after its been broken down by whatever crisis. This allows me to slip in aspects of the world building naturally through the character’s actions.

Another way is to offhand mention it when the character is walking around or doing some action. They take notice that the weirdness is there, but they aren’t bothered by it. I’ve noticed that in real life people may often ‘discover’ things that were there all along, but they might not have noticed at first. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why they suddenly noticed it — though sometimes it can be because a friend pointed it out to them — but it’s something we all do to some extent.

I’m still gathering techniques and ideas on how to better integrate world build details into my tales, but these are some possibilities that may prove helpful. Be sure to listen to the podcast for even better and more intensive ideas! (I didn’t list them here mostly because it’s way better to hear it for yourself.)

So tell me, dear readers, how do you deal with this?

Categories: Characters, World Building, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , ,

6 comments

  1. I have an advantage in that my novel is narrated by an alien, who’s composing the narrative for the benefit of both aliens and humans, so he frequently makes asides to explain things to both.

    The advantage is lost in terms of POV, since having one character explain what all the other characters are thinking is cool, but terribly challenging.

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    • I just noticed this comment! Sorry for the long wait in reply.

      That is one way to handle it, and that does sound challenging. And also very interesting.

      I used to write in first person only, but lately have been exploring limited third and then having a selection of characters, where each chapter is from one of their perspectives. (I then stay in their perspective for the entire chapter.) This allows me to examine the same event from multiple perspectives, thus giving the reader a chance to see the nuances in perception as well as glimpse a bit more of the world since each character notices slightly different things. (Although there is some overlap.)

      Not sure if that’s the best way to do it either, but it’s fun though.

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    • No prob! 🙂

      I always like stories that show different perspectives on events, although sometimes I get weirdly territorial over one character’s perspective if it suddenly shifts to someone else… Playing with POV is definitely a subtle-yet-drastic way to change a story!

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    • Very true! Ah ha, it’s interesting because sometimes I do as well, and then I try to read faster through the new POV to get back to the old… only to realize later that the new POV is just as interesting, I was just blind to it at first. Funny how that is.

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  2. Good ideas.

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