Sunday, January 9, 2011

Telling the Story: Point of View

In fiction, we have several choices of narrator, and you should decide which narrative voice to use based on the needs of your story.

Point of View represents the perspective from which a story is told.  This is essentially the identity of the narrator, as understood through the narrator's opinions and knowledge.  In most stories, the narrator has is seen to have a vested interest in the outcome of the story, and this heightens the tension.  This is natural for the First Person Narrator, in which a character is telling his or her own story.  Since this character is most likely an active participant in the events of the story, we tend to feel a special bond with this kind of narrator.  However, this is the most limited narrative form - any information which the character doesn't already know must somehow be introduced through dialogue or outside events.  Likewise, this limits your use of perspective - unlike a Third Person Narrator, who can step back from the story and characters to give a touch of outside perspective, we can only see and hear what the character sees and hears.

Third Person Versus First Person: Which Is Better?
Third person has been the traditional form preferred by fiction authors.  However, there seems to be a general shift toward first person in contemporary literature - this is probably due to mass media and the widespread exposure to "first person reporting" through e-mail, blogs, and reality television.  We're more accustomed to first person narrative now than ever before.  Unfortunately, this leads many beginning writers to be overdependent on the first person narrative.  They tend to assume that anything said in the tone of "I did this/I saw that" takes on the strength of truth.  This is however not true.  Suspension of Disbelief only comes when the reader fully believes the "facts" of the story, and this is best achieved through the use of sharp detail, vivid action, and true-to-life dialogue.  Because of this, I recommend that all writers master the use of third person narrative.  This forces you to consider which details must be included in order for the reader to believe in the story.

This said, we have two choices for third person, the Third Person Limited and the Third Person Omniscient.  Once again, modern culture is steadily pushing literature more toward the perspective of the individual.  Unlike the omniscient, all-knowing narrators of classical literature who could spend whole chapters describing the architectural and symbolic history of a cathedral as seen through the eyes of every priest and parishioner in attendance on a busy Sunday morning, contemporary narrators are usually locked-in to the perspectives of a single character.  Rather than show the thoughts of the priest giving the sermon and the worries of the grandmother in the first pew and the lingering rage of the dutiful father sitting beside her, a third person limited narrative would focus on the stories central character - that good-for-nothing grandson sitting in the back row.  And all the other characters would be seen through his eyes, even though it's not the grandson himself telling the story.  He despised that hypocrite reading the sermon, such a story might start.  But because it's third person, we can also get some outside perspective to temper the teenage rebel's thoughts:
His leather jacket was still damp with unwashed sweat.  He would have rather been sleeping, and everyone knew it.  He could see their disgust in every averted gaze.  They all assumed he came to church just because he had a crush on Caroline, the lead soprano in the choir.  But he knew she despised him - going to church wouldn't change that.  And he didn't care enough about her to give up a whole Sunday morning.  But Grandma Gertrude was dying.  Mom and Dad could pretend they didn't hear her wheezing with every breath, but he couldn't.  So what if Dad said he didn't want Adam to "spoil another Sunday" - he didn't want Grandma to die thinking he was the kind of good-for-nothing low-life who skipped church to sleep in.

For short stories, it's rare that you'd ever need the perspective of multiple characters in order to reveal the entire story.  "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" is a good exception to this guideline - we need at least two perspectives here in order to maintain the information control right up until the very end.  Usually, though, you'll want your short story to hinge on the change in a single protagonist, and his or her point of view will be the only one you need.

Novels, however, are vastly different in scope than the short story.  Many - especially multi-part epics such as The Lord of the Rings - often depend on the perspectives of multiple characters in order to convey the intricacies of a complicated world.  Tad Williams and Dan Simmons are two authors who excel in the use of Serial Third Person Limited Narration - usually, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, allowing us to see the scope of society through multiple eyes, and yet we remain secure in knowing whose perspective we are following from one page to the next.  Compare this with Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, two sagas told almost entirely from single point-of-view characters, whether the boy wizard or the lovely Bella Swan.

The challenge of this - particularly in Twilight, which is in the first person - is finding a way to present all the necessary information to the reader using just the one point of view.  Rowling gets around this partly by using several magical means of transmitting memories from other characters to Harry, but most new information is discovered the old-fashioned way: our plucky protagonists Harry and Bella interact with other characters, gleaning bits of information through investigation and dialogue.  Therein lies the prime advantage of limiting the perspective to a single character throughout the entire work - because the reader only learns information with the main protagonist, we naturally share the hero's nervous anticipation of an unknown future.

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