How To Use Viewpoint As A Source Of Conflict

How To Use Viewpoint As A Source Of Conflict


In this post we continue our discussion about conflict in fiction. We discuss how to use viewpoint as a source of conflict.

*This post contains spoilers for Gone Girl and Catcher in the Rye.

In this post we continue our discussion about conflict in fiction. We discuss how to use viewpoint as a source of conflict.

So far, we have looked at, general sources of conflictnon-violent conflictphysical conflictsettingconversation/dialoguesub-plots and genre as sources of conflict. Today, we will look at viewpoint and conflict.

Viewpoint, at the most basic level, is about choosing first person, second person, or third person to tell your story, but to borrow the words of Kristen Steiffel, ‘Viewpoint is not about pronouns. Viewpoint is about character.’ As you get to know your characters you’ll learn that it’s much more nuanced than just choosing between ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘they’.

How To Use Viewpoint As A Source Of Conflict

Remember that conflict is not just about the fistfights and car bombs. It’s about the challenges that are created through the reversal of desires and the opposition the arises from that.

We need both inner and outer conflict to tell our stories. Viewpoint is a great tool to express the inner conflict of our characters, but it can also add to the outer conflict.

When you start thinking about a story you want to tell you need to know who the viewpoint character is. You need to know what they know and what they don’t know. You need to know what they can and cannot do and where they can and can’t go. This will all affect the flow of information in the story and add or cause conflict.

Unreliable Narrators

The most obvious use of viewpoint as a conflict tool is an unreliable narrator. Think about Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or Amy from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. These characters lie to us, and everyone in the story, on purpose. They create chaos for those around them, but that is not the only way to use viewpoint for conflict.  There are many kinds of unreliable narrators.

The Viewpoint Character

Consider the words of Anaïs Nin: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’

We all have a limited or restricted view of the world that is dependent on how, where, and when we were raised, and the experiences we had.

Yes, our characters can become more aware, learn, and grow – overcoming the narrow views of their upbringing may even be their inner conflict, but most of us regardless of race, religion, or gender have biases and prejudices. These can be both positive or negative and can create lots of conflict in your story.

Who you choose to use as the viewpoint character for the scene will create and show the conflict. Is it in the viewpoint of the oppressed or the oppressor?

Example: Consider a story that takes place in a religious cult. Is your story told from the viewpoint of the cult leader, a new cult member, a member who wants to leave the cult, or a journalist investigating the cult from the outside? These decisions will have a big impact on the story you are telling.

Distance

Viewpoint is always about distance and how close we get to the story and the experiences and opinions of the characters. For example, are there secrets that must be revealed and how easy is it to keep those secrets?

Example: The journalist in the previous example will be further away from the cult than the leader or a member. An older member of the cult would know more than a new member, but this can all be manipulated by your choice of viewpoint.

Suggested Reading: How Viewpoint Works – 10 Ways To Tell A Story

Narrators & Third Person

With these options you are further away from the story. Narrators can stand inside or outside the story. We do not have to know who they are, but the story will be filtered through their perspective. For example, the murderer can be an anonymous narrator and share everything about the crime but we need to figure out who it is.

Narrators can be omniscient, which means they will share a lot of information or they can be narrower with third person limited, and only reveal certain information. This will help to create and show inner and outer conflict.

Example: You can use the member who has left the cult or the journalist as a narrator. The story can be told in retrospect or as a news report. Both of these create more distance. The inner conflict and emotional impact would be greater for the member than for the journalist depending on the journo’s motives. By using third person attached you could achieve a similar effect and reduce the distance, but it still wouldn’t be as close as first or second person.

First Person & Second Person 

These viewpoints bring you very close to the story and take you into the character’s mind and offer unfiltered access to their thoughts, but not necessarily that of the other characters. We may have to rely on dialogue for that.

This helps to show the reader how the character thinks and how misunderstandings and misconceptions can wreak havoc in a story. Inner conflict in all its existential glory.

Example: You could use the viewpoint of the cult leader to expose the cult as a scam or to show his deteriorating mental health. The viewpoint of the new member could help guide the reader through the new world of the cult and show us the intricacies of the belief system.

Single, Dual, Or Multiple Viewpoints

Limiting your story to one viewpoint will help you to force the reader to only have the information that the character does. Dual viewpoints will help you to tell ‘both sides of the story’ and multiple viewpoints will give you a chance to show how the conflict affects all the characters in the story.

The Last Word

Viewpoint is a beautifully nuanced tool that can help you increase the inner and outer conflict in your story. Learn how to use viewpoint as a source of conflict in your stories.

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

Buy Mia’s book on how to write short stories: Write the crap out of it and other short story writing advice

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

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  3. How To Use Conversation As A Source Of Conflict In Fiction
  4. 31 Writing Prompts For May 2021
  5. Clothes Maketh The Character
  6. 6 Tips & Tricks For Writing Scene Transitions
  7. 6 Quick Fixes For Adding Setting To Your Story
  8. Where Does Conflict Come From In Fiction?

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.