Thursday, September 20, 2012

Point of View 1

Point of View: Sitting in God's Chair

When it comes to writing fiction, point of view means the location of your narrator with respect to the story. If the narrator is a character within the story, he or she will use the first-person pronoun "I" and will interact with the other characters*: Dr. Watson in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories,  the nameless narrator of Rebecca, Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but NOT in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are all examples of first-person narrators. Naturally enough, this is first-person point of view.

However, probably a majority of fiction is told from the third-person point of view. Here the narrator is located outside the story--is not a character, in other words. We assume that the narrating voice is that of the author, and the narrator uses third-person pronouns, he, she, they, and so on, to refer to all the characters. The Harry Potter books are third-person, the 87th Precinct detective novels are third-person, and so on.

We are concerned right now with a variant called the third-person omniscient point of view. As "omniscience" hints, in this one the author knows and can tell everything about everybody. The narrator can reveal what any character thinks or feels at any point, even within the same sentence: "Rocco lied, hoping that O'Banion would believe him, while O'Banion struggled to keep a straight face as he nodded and murmured, 'I see, I see.'"

Well, why the heck not? I mean, the writer creates the characters. Why not tell what everybody is thinking all the time?

One big reason is that third-person omniscient point of view makes you job much harder. It defuses tension and removes mystery. And it's hard to keep straight. Errors occur. I noticed in one best-selling novel written in this point of view that one of the characters involved in a group discussion got up and left the room. Three paragraphs later the author gave his reaction to something another character had just said - but the guy in question was out of the room and couldn't have heard the remark. The writer just lost track.

Personally, I think that point-of-view confusion involving omniscience is responsible for Mario Puzo's having accidentally omitted the entire year of 1946 from The Godfather. I'm not kidding. After Don Vito is shot on Christmas Eve, 1945, we go directly to the big gang war of 1947, which starts a few days after the assassination attempt.

In the early days of the novel, first-person point of view dominated, though it was often serial first-person, with different narrators taking turns telling the story; this is mainly because many of the first English novels were epistolary stories, told through such devices as letters written by different characters (as is the case with a much later novel, Dracula). Then the omniscient point of view became popular. Thackeray and Dickens both wrote long novels in third-person omniscient point of view.

Today, well, I'd advise the newer writer to avoid tackling full omniscient point of view. There are other ways to tell a story, and we'll look at a few of them in later installments.

*It occurs to me that an exception is "S.S. Van Dyne," the putative author/narrator of the Philo Vance detective novels, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Van Dyne is Vance's "Watson," but as far as I can remember he never says a word of dialogue and rarely if ever uses the word "I"--he's just sort of there, and now and then the other characters will refer to him, but he's at best a very ghostly presence as a first-person narrator.

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