Point of View: What’s Yours?

I do promise that I’ll quit following that SUV after today!  (It’s described in the Jan. 1st post if you’re a new reader.)  If you don’t mind, let’s revisit it one more time to talk about another especially important component of fiction.  Point of view.  An author first addresses point(s) of view as s/he decides who will tell the story.  For example, it might be an omniscient narrator who speaks from a distance in the third person.  Another narrative option commonly used in more contemporary literary fiction is to relate each character’s point of view in his/her own “voice” (still in the third person) by using his/her vocabulary and vernacular, using only what the character knows, thinks and feels, sometimes called “tight” or “close” third person.  For example, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is written in tight 3rd person with multiple points of view.  (And an extra note:  this approach may be a legacy of the “post modern” novelists who generally distrusted the voice of any exernal authoritative narrator.)

The choice of narrator opens new dimensions, too:  suppose I were to pick yet another option, an intimate first person narrator (who can’t automatically be entirely relied upon for accuracy or objectivity because this narrator must be assumed to have a history and experiences that color what s/he sees and relates).  For example, returning to one of our SUV scenarios:  Suppose we go back to imagining the grandfather as dead, and his widow, the owner of the big black van,  barely coping.  Say she lives by envisioning her lost husband in heaven, arranging revenge for the death of their grandson.  Suppose she subtly deteriorates during the book, and comes to believe she’s to carry out his plan?  What if she’s the first person narrator?   

One commentator, Nancy Pinard, suggested that an author’s own baggage affects how we interpret what we see.  How true.  When I think of myself as the first person narrator of the January 1 post about the SUV, what comes up?  One grandfather died when I was five, though I do remember being afraid of his booming brusqueness.  The other was a gentle, quiet soul who’d doesn’t match any of my male SUV owner visions.  My own dad, a retired Army Colonel, adored his cars and wouldn’t have defaced one with paint if held at gunpoint. “Pull the trigger, you nincompoop,” he’d have said.  But he was rigidly conservative in his opinions, and while he was warm and affectionate, he also had an unforgiving side.  So for me it’s plausible that a grandfather might not forgive a grandson…or himself.   More immediately though, my next book will have a female character who perceives herself to be unforgiven for relinquishing a child.  So the theme is, indeed, alive and up front in my mind.

Did it affect my original “read” of the painting on the SUV?   Now that’s in interesting idea.  If I were to pursue this SUV mini sketch as a start for a novel, who would tell the story?  What would be his/her ax to grind?  Maybe it would be most interesting told from multiple points of view, each of them seeing what happened to Nicholas through the separate lens of his/her relationship to him and the event.  But I’m also attracted to my first person grieving widow overwhelmed with her two losses (described in the January 9th post.)  Her voice would be fascinating to develop, and the slow revelation that she’s not a reliable narrator would be an artistic challenge.  Maybe all this should go in my written-down ideas file, to let it percolate for a future novel.  

What do you think?  I’d love reactions.  Do any of these premises for a story grab you?  If so, which one?  Does a particular narrative point of view appeal to you most?  Is there a character whose point of view is the most fascinating?

The great thing about receiving comments is gathering new points of view to consider as I work.  I really appreciate them.

2 Responses to Point of View: What’s Yours?

  1. I had the same sense of omniscience–use of a distant narrator as storyteller, as in 18th and 19th century British fiction–until 2004 when I began to notice how many Pulitzer Prize winners were using it: Richard Russo in Empire Falls, Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Cunningham in The Hours. To my surprise, I did not feel held off the story, but discovered that when done well, omniscience can be very enriching. I took Tolstoy as my model, particularly in Anna Karenina, where he begins from above, like God, looking down on the Oblonsky household as if he’s taken the roof off a dollhouse, but then later, panning in and out as if with a telephoto lens. He moves around to the minds of different characters, including the dog at one point, which made me laugh. The flexibility is amazing. And when he chooses to preach on his favorite subject, the redemptive value of labor, he puts his thoughts in the mind of a character–Levin, the gentleman farmer. How very contemporary! (Contrast that with Melville, who, in Moby Dick, introduces chapters on whales in the voice of a narrator, not Ishmael, causing the contemporary reader to say, “What’s this doing here?”) The result of my reading? I had to try it. It was hard at first, and I tended not to let the reader stay with each character long enough to become entrenched before I uprooted and moved him–why informed readers were essential. And I was accustomed to staying behind the eyes of my POV character, so it was hard to get unstuck. Gradually, with the help of Elizabeth Strout in my MFA program, I learned to shift inside, outside, inside, outside. I still tend to change the POV at the ends of scenes–using space breaks, though if you want to see a writer do it at any point in a scene, read Anita Brookner’s The Latecomers. She’s nothing short of masterful.

  2. I’m having the same trouble with your blog entries as I do with your books — you write them faster than I can read them. But I’ll do my best to keep up with you, (and with your learned commentators).

    For what it’s worth, I still find myself intrigued by the whole idea of seeing something on another car which prompts you/your protagonist to immediately change plans, follow the other car and investigate. Just the bare bones of that, it seems to me, could be the premise of a thriller, (if you ever wanted to write one). One impulsive moment of curiosity leads you out of the comfort zone of your daily life and into a maelstrom of — what?

    You and Ms. Pinard have much of interest to say about Points of View. Please pardon me offering my widow’s mite in the form of random ramblings. I don’t have my copy of MOBY DICK handy, but if memory serves it never occurred to me to figure that the author of all those non-fiction chapters was necessarily someone other than Ishmael. The subjects of those chapters may have been “off-topic” as far as the fable of the Pequod’s captain and crew was concerned, but, rightly or wrongly, I just accepted the voice as Ishmael’s.

    I wonder who was the first cave-dweller by the communal fire to play with points of view. I can imagine a moment when he senses he’s losing his audience. “They’ve heard me talk about my hunting prowess too many times before. What can I do to make this one a little different, a little more intreresting…?” So he starts improvising as follows in his tale to the assembled citizenry: “Well, just as I’m creeping up behind the mastodon, spear in hand, thinking what a fine meal he’ll make for the folks back home, I step on a twig and it goes Crack! I freeze. The mastodon says to himself, ‘What was that?!’ He turns around, and he’s thinking, ‘I hope it’s not another one of those two-legged spear-chuckers. They’re such pests…”

    Finally, concerning the supposed difference between a story told from the P.O.V. of an omniscient narrator and a story that jumps around amongst the P.O.V.’s of all the different characters. When I think about it, it occurs to me to wonder, What could be more omniscient than a narrator who can get inside everybody’s skin like that and give the reader all those different points of view?

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