POV: Writing the Bystander Viewpoint

Using the term “Main Character (MC)” is sticky when your story is told through the viewpoint of a bystander. Who’s the “MC” when you have a viewpoint character who is telling the story but isn’t the main actor?

Well, that’s just a party of terms.

Narrator – the character telling the story (in this case, a character related but not central to the action of the story)

Protagonist – the character the story is about (the character in the middle of the action)

Viewpoint Character – used in either first person or third limited perspective stories, the character that acts as the lens for the story (what they see, we see, to put it simply, and the narrator IS the viewpoint character in this POV)

You can find this sideline view more in older novels, many of which show up on student reading lists for US high schools. The Great Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and the Sherlock Holmes stories among others.

As with any POV, there are pros and cons to the use of a bystander to tell the story.

On the con sides (these stand in for warnings for those considering it for their story) bystanders, by nature, aren’t in the middle of things.

Generally, the action of a story moves faster the closer your viewpoint character is to it. Standing back can help give readers a bigger picture of the context, but if you opt for first person narration, it can be a challenge to make the scene pop with emotion without overwhelming it with description.

Logistics can be challenging too. Your bystander has to be close enough to logically see everything they need to see for the audience to keep up with the story. If, say, your bystander isn’t a confidant to the protagonist, then things going on behind closed doors would only come to light if you position them as confidant to another person in that closed room. Or have them interrupt a message about what went on, or have them be a tireless snoop with secret cameras/microphones around, etc. Plotting out scenes becomes more important and tricky when you’ve assigned yourself to stand with your narrator on the sidelines.

Also, your bystander-viewpoint character needs to be a character. There’s a fine balance between having too much and too little characterization for a viewpoint character. Some writers take the plunge and make their narrators unreliable. That can be a party and a half! Check out some links provided at the end of the post for more on how to do that.

Other writers tend toward making their viewpoint characters quiet, objective, observant types, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He’s nearly transparent. If not for his opinions, which are often vanilla at best, he’d be a cardboard cut-out of a character. Whoever your viewpoint character is, it can be a challenge to develop them enough to make them come alive and keep the focus on the action of the story.

This POV is glorious when done well!

Harvey Chapman, over at Novel Writing Help, outlines some very good reasons to use a bystander as a viewpoint character in his post First Person Narration Using an “Observer”.

Head over to his post for the list, which might spark some inspiration for a new story or help you decide if this convention is right for your current project.


Happy Writing!




First Person Narration Using an “Observer” | Novel Writing Help

How do you choose the right viewpoint and narrator for your novel? | Reedsy

8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators | Writers Digest

The 7 Narrator Types: and You Thought There Were Only Two! | Be Kind Rewrite



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