Thursday, March 15, 2012

5 Perspectives on Point-of-View

1.      There are infinite shades of POV

“Basically, there are three choices for POV – first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.” 

If you read a lot of advice on writing – in books, magazines or blogs – you’ve probably heard something similar to that a thousand times.  Often, the advice giver will go on to admit – grudgingly – that there are a few other variations.  (Like second person, if you’re feeling really pretentious and affected.)  And they will tell you that omniscient viewpoint is “old fashioned”, out of date – and anyway, too fraught with peril for any beginning writer to consider.  So pretty, much, your choices are first person and third person limited.  In fact, third person limited with multiple viewpoint characters – with the POV shifts scrupulously divided by chapters, or possibly scene breaks (but never ever ever happening within a scene!) is pretty much the default for big suspense novels, epic fantasies and the like.  

This is a lot like telling a painter there are only three colors:  red, blue and yellow.  In a way, that’s true.  And you could produce some interesting paintings (or at least comic books) using that idea.  But you would be severely limited.  There’s an entire world of things you couldn’t render realistically – and you’d have a hell of a time representing perspective or depth.

POV is sort of the same way.  We could think of third person (limited and omniscient and all the “in-between”), first person, and second person as primary POV’s.  They’re at the corner of the of the color triangle.  Between them, though, are all the shades of the spectrum – as Mr. Spock used to say, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”

A lot of people who should know better – editors, agents and even other writers – will make it sound like there are rules for POV.  As with anything in writing – or art (or business or love or life) – there is really only one rule:  YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT WORK.

In Moby Dick, which is arguably the greatest of all American novels, Herman Melville starts in first person (“Call me Ishmael.”  An opening that is not quite as clear cut as it seems – notice he doesn’t say, “My name is Ishmael”, does he?)  Then, about a third of the way into the book, once the voyage of the Pequod is underway, Ishmael’s first person voice pretty much disappears, and we find ourselves in something that looks a lot like old school omniscient – complete with long essay-like passages about whaling, whale anatomy, metaphysics, and other topics – then at the end of the book Ishmael’s voice returns to wrap up the story.  No explanation, no apologies.  Just try getting that past your writing group.

William Faulkner, in the story “A Rose for Emily” uses the voice of the town – a sort of collective “we” – to narrate the events.  More recently, Stephen King, in Salem’s Lot has passages in which the town itself is the POV, and we jump rapidly through different locations and characters to see what is going on.  Peter Straub picked this technique up from King and expanded it brilliantly in Ghost Story, where the town sections gives us a grisly overview of what is going on everywhere – something none of the characters could know. Ghost Story, like most of Straub's work, is a wonderful example of the range and power of effects that can be achieved by experimenting with unusual POVs.)

2.      A Memoir by Any Other Name is Still Not a Novel

You could write a long essay – or a book or a PhD thesis – on how it is that third person limited came to be the default POV in American fiction in the twentieth century.  To be brief, I don’t think it’s an accident that this kind of fiction coincides with the rise of memoirs as a major literary form.  The twentieth century, in America and the Western World, at least, was a time when a lot of people who had never had a voice – never been able to tell their stories – finally got the chance.  There was an incredible release of political and social energy there.  And it re-shaped the arts.  We became convinced that writing was about “telling your story”, and that the most important element of art was “self-expression”.  I am skeptical about that, to say the least.  I understand the importance of telling certain stories, and of speaking things which have long been forbidden or repressed.  But we lost something along the way.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the novel as a form corresponds historically to the rise of liberal democracies and multi-cultural societies.  As Jane Smiley (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel) has pointed out, one of the most powerful effects of the novel is that it allows us to experience other lives, other times, and other points of view.  It expands our sense of what it means to be human.  The novel – as opposed to older forms like poetry and romance – was frequently about the part of society that had been left out and forgotten.  It was about women, common people, even slaves.  The power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century in America, which Lincoln only half-facetiously credited with starting the civil war, was not that it was another polemic against slavery – it was that for the first time in popular culture it presented slaves as whole people with complex inner lives.  Once readers have made that leap – once they had glimpsed that possibility – it was damnably hard to go back.

The great eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists had a kind of ambition to encompass the entire world – or at least the whole of a certain society – within their work.  Think of Tolstoy sweeping across Europe in War and Peace or of Dickens scandalizing London by showing the hidden connections between all the social classes.  That’s how the novel works.  The defining characteristic of the greatest novels is not “self-expression” – its empathic imagination.  

To be fair, I should admit that I’m not really fond of memoirs as a form.  I seldom read one that doesn’t contain a dog or a scientist.  The difference between a great memoir and a great novel is the difference a good home movie and the Sistine Chapel. 

3.      Third Person Limited is Just First Person in Drag

Henry James once remarked that, for any work longer than a short story, the First Person point of view was “barbaric”.  That might be (as John Gardner has suggested) going a bit far – but there’s point to be made.  First person is tailored to certain kinds of stories – Raymond Chandler and his descendents for instance made it the standard for private eye fiction – and most mysteries still use it.  This kind of fiction depends heavily on voice.  There are mystery series that I read not because I care that much about the plots, or who-dunnit, but because I like the main characters, appreciate her (these days it often seem to be “her”) voice, and like spending time in that world.    

Outside of mysteries, Huckleberry Finn is the classic example.  It is, ultimately, Huck’s voice that we remember, his peculiar take on the world.  The same could be said of contemporary writers like Robert B. Parker.  I’m not sure I could remember the storyline of any given Spenser novel all the way through, or could separate the scenes in my mind by what book they came from.  But who cares? I can pick up any one of his books, read the first paragraph, and I’m hooked.  I’m seduced by the voice.  That is the power of first person at its best.
The drawbacks though are serious.  First person makes it very hard to achieve any kind of real scale.  The first person narrative is limited in scope.

Third person limited (note that adjective) has the same drawbacks – and lacks both the immediacy and the voice of first.  Its strength is that it can take us deeper inside a character than any other viewpoint (except that omniscient can do that too, and still have the greater scope at its disposal).  Seeing through the character’s eyes gives the writer the opportunity to explore perception, to color the world by the character’s thoughts and feelings.  This can be very effective – and this kind of subjectivity has been the obsession of twentieth century literature.  The problem with it – I believe – is that it traps us in a world where nothing is ever true – just “perceived”.  And where our viewpoint – the writer’s, the character’s, human being’s – is all there is.

This is probably the place to say that I’m really tired of the whole “unreliable narrator” shtick.  We get it.  People don’t always tell the truth – even to themselves.  How you see much of the world depends on where you stand.  It’s possible that we’re all crazy.  Yep, we get it.  It’s been done.  Like photo-realism in painting, it’s an interesting experiment – once or twice.  Then …

4.      You don’t need God to be Omniscient

Many critics believe that omniscient viewpoint in fiction lost favor in part because of the breakdown in our religious world view – the onslaught of science, philosophy and skepticism broke down the old certainties, and it was no longer possible to be quite so confident that there was an over-riding truth, or even an objective reality.  Maybe POV is all there is.  This was a revolutionary idea in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (and apparently still is, at least in Hollywood, which explains why Phillip K. Dick is the only science fiction writer a lot of people can name).  It is an idea, I think, that has pretty much run its course.

Science shows us that, while it may never be possible to find absolute certainty about the world, it is possible to grope our way to better and better approximations of it.  Some things are true independent of belief.  (If you step off a twenty story building, you’re going to fall – no matter what your deeply held personal convictions are.)  

I don’t see why fiction can’t reflect this.  What if our omniscient viewpoint was not God, but evolution?  Or Deep Time? Or just the ecological web of life itself?

Step out in your yard for a second.  Close your eyes.  Listen past the traffic noises and the neighbor kids playing.  What do you hear?  Find the sounds of life going on around you.  What are the concerns of the songbirds in the trees?  The rats tunneling under the fence?  The opossum sleeping in the back of your garage with her babies in a pouch?  Where are they in our fiction?

When we limit our ideas of POV, we don’t just limit our style.  We limit the kinds of stories we can tell.  We limit whose stories we can tell.

As an everyday person, I’m small.  Selfish, impatient, opinionated.  But as a writer, as a Novelist, I should be more. I should contain multitudes.

5.      Don’t Use POV to cheat your reader

I said above that first person was the most common POV for mysteries – where-as large scale suspense novels are often written in some form of third person – usually with multiple viewpoint characters.  There’s a reason for that.  And it has to do with the difference between mystery and suspense.

Imagine a group of characters standing around a table.  On the table is a box.  If none of the characters – or the reader – know what’s in the box, it’s a mystery.  Mystery is basically an intellectual effect.  We wonder and think about what could be in the box.  First person, or very close third person, works beautifully for mysteries because the reader doesn’t know any more than the narrator and can learn everything as the narrator does.  

Suspense, however, is an emotional reaction – it’s akin to tension, anxiety and fear.  Whereas mystery comes from what we don’t know – suspense comes very often from what we do know.
Back to the box on the table.  If none of the characters knows what’s in it – but the reader knows it’s a bomb and it’s going to go off in two minutes – that’s suspense.  

It’s also called “dramatic irony”.  The literary term for when the reader knows something the characters don’t.  And it can be extremely powerful.  Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to achieve in first person or close third person.

Historical novelists can use this to great effect.  You can show us, Abraham Lincoln, for instance talking to his advisors about his plans for the future, on the day before he goes to the play at Ford’s Theater.  If this is done well, it can be incredibly poignant.  A young wife is planning a romantic dinner for her husband’s homecoming, but we already know the husband is dead.  Or a character who is stressed and freaking out about his small problems, while we’ve been shown a larger perspective and can see just how shallow his concerns really are.

I’m a big fan of dramatic irony.  I tend to think that in any plot that isn’t specifically built around “who killed Roger Rabbit” – a mystery in other words – that withholding information from the reader is cheating, and the suspense you create by doing it is cheap and unfair.  (Even in the mystery, there is a sense that the writer should “play fair” – that the information to solve the problem should be there, if the reader can only discern what’s important.)

The worst examples of this kind of thing are often found in those big suspense novels we mentioned earlier, with their third person, multiple-character viewpoints.  I’ve read too many novels where the writer actually puts us into the head of the villain early on in the story and “cleverly” – by misdirection or outright deceit – hides the person’s true identity from us.  (Are you listening Dan Brown?)  As soon as I realize this, I lose all faith in the writer and in his story.  He cheated.  How much more effective would it have been to simply reveal the villain to me – while hiding it from the protagonist – and generate real suspense out of that knowledge?

POV is one of the most important – and infinitely flexible – tools in the writer’s arsenal.  The ways in which can be told, the voices and perspectives and combinations that can be used, are as rich and varied as the rainbow.  I’m not suggesting that you don’t use the primary colors.  I’m just telling you that there’s a whole spectrum to paint with.  And the only way to learn that spectrum is to read – as widely as possible – and start experimenting with mixing the colors yourself. 


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area. 

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