As I’ve said before, the term “viewpoint” gets used to mean both the person who is seeing the action (viewpoint character) and the way in which everything is written (viewpoint type). This is going to be about the latter sort of viewpoint. Specifically, it’s about first-person.
First-person viewpoint is the “I” viewpoint: “I hate pickled beets. I’ve always hated them. But Ma thinks they’re good for what ails you, so whenever I’m sick, I get pickled beets.”
A lot of people jump straight to first-person when they start writing, because it looks easy. For quite a while, first-person was so over-used by beginning writers that it got a really bad reputation as something only an amateur would try. There are still traces of that around, some places.
But first-person isn’t as easy as it looks, and there are a lot of possible varieties. “Plain” first person is the most common – something written as if the reader is riding along in the narrator’s head. There’s the subtly different form in which the narrator is writing everything down immediately after the fact (or years later). Then there’s the as-told-to, where the first-person narrator is telling the story to someone (possibly the reader; possibly another character) and the reader is listening in. Diaries, letters, memoir, stream-of-consciousness - all different formats requiring slightly different approaches, but all first-person.
The thing that’s most difficult for a lot of writers to grasp about first person is that they are not the putative narrator. When I say “I did this or that” in normal everyday life, I mean me, the person currently sitting here typing. But when my first-person narrator says “I did that,” the “I” doesn’t mean me-who-is-typing. “I” means the character.
This is so obvious that to most folks it goes without saying. But if one doesn’t say it or think it or pay attention to it, one is likely to find that habit takes over. All my life, “I” has meant me-who-is-typing, and that’s a lot of habit to overcome. It’s no wonder that a lot of first-person narrators sound (and think and act) a lot like their authors. (It is also no wonder that a lot of readers leap to the conclusion that anything written in first person is autobiographical, or at least reflects the writer’s opinions and errors of knowledge, rather than the character’s – but that’s a rant for another time.)
It can help to pick a first-person narrator who has a strong voice of their own – one that is unlike the author’s natural voice. It can also help to pick a character who is significantly different from the author in some way – age, sex, ethnicity, ability/disability, etc. But these things only help if the author thinks about them and the ways they’ll affect the character’s voice and opinions and attitudes; when the author doesn’t think, you get the young black woman protagonist who sounds oddly like a middle-aged white author (and who more than half the readers don’t even realize is black until nearly the end of the book. If then.)
A strong voice helps because first-person is written in the voice of the character – in a lot of the varieties, the narrative is supposed to sound like dialog, like the viewpoint character telling you the story. A question always comes up when the viewpoint character has an accent or uses dialect or pidgin as their normal speech pattern, because it is a writing truism that too heavy a hand with dialect or phonetic respelling can make something almost unreadable (the poetry of Robert Burns, anyone?).
But dialog in any book isn’t an accurate transcript of the way people really talk. Dialog leaves out the ums and ers and most of the sentences that trail off into nowhere and a lot of the digressions and speech tics that happen in real life conversations. It’s a model of the way people talk…and first-person narrative is even more so.
When you’re writing first-person, you are inside that character’s head (or nearly) all the time. People don’t sound to themselves as if they have an accent. Inside their heads, that’s just how everyone talks. I’m not the one with the accent; it’s my friends from the deep South, from New England, from Scotland who have regional accents. The French I speak in my head sounds just fine to me; it’s everyone else who knows instantly from my accent that I’m a native English speaker. So a writer can skip most of the phonetic respelling aspects of doing accent in narrative, which instantly makes everything a lot more readable, and stick with word order and idiosyncratic word choice to convey the narrator’s speech patterns. (This also works well in many cases for the dialog of characters other than the narrator who have accents.)