Friday, March 27, 2009

POV, Part II

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Allow me to indulge my Inner Pedant for the length of a post. After this, no more graphs. Promise.

Choosing the right POV for a story is one of a writer's most critical tasks. Sometimes the choice is obvious from the outset, and comes wholly from intuition; at other times--especially in multi-POV stories--the kinds of things that can be told depend on whose consciousness is filtering events, and the writer may have to wrestle with whose POV ought to dominate a given scene.

It seems to me that each of the major categories of POV (first, second, third limited, and third) also have a distinct range of intimacy, or psychic distance, over which they can work. I've tried to capture my concept of 'range' in the chart below, with the bars representing the natural distance each kind of POV voice can cover.

Before I launch into details, I ought to define how I'm using the protean term 'omniscient.' Many writers use the label casually to mean a narrative POV that can dip into many minds, even in the course of a single scene. Omniscience includes that ability, of course, but it also means much more. An omniscient narrator in principle can know anything about anything (though any given narrative voice may not claim quite that much), even foretelling the future accurately. But one of the most important aspects of a truly omniscient POV is a reliable narrative consciousness that exists independently of the minds of any of the characters--a narrative voice that must be believed for the book to work. An omniscient perspective is what allows Tolstoy to open with "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." An omniscient distance is what allows Jane Austen to add her most memorable and ironic running commentary on the events of her stories. And, despite claims that the omniscient POV is largely a creature of the 19th century, omniscient narrators are alive and well in plenty of recent fiction, including Douglas Adams' Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

In terms of psychic distance, or "intimacy," the first-person POV can get closer to the reader than any other. In first-person (with a few odd exceptions--more on that later) there is no narrative voice separate from the the voice of the POV character; there is no suggestion that another consciousness is filtering thoughts, and we can share a wholly subjective experience with the character.

On the other hand, first-person cannot reach the fully omniscient, authorial voice, that declares Truth, delves into the minds of others, or makes impartial observations about the first-person character. The first-person narrator can engage in objective exposition, and can even attempt to describe matters in an omniscient fashion; but there is a single, fallible consciousness narrating, and this means any observations the narrative voice makes--even pertaining to facts, and even more so with regards to principles and conclusions--are bound to be colored by the narrator's perceptions. The 'unreliable narrator' is possible in other POVs, but is most common in first person. (It may be most effective in second person.)

Putting second-person to the side for a moment, third-person limited has a range very similar to first-person; indeed, some people describe third-person limited as "first-person using 'he' or 'she' instead of 'I'." (John Gardner, brilliant but always grouchy, claimed that the dominance of third-person limited showed there was something deeply wrong with modern fiction.)

Third-person limited has a range with a span similar to that of first-person, but offset a little in the direction of greater psychic distance. Third-person limited can be very subjective--it can delve deep enough that the inner workings of a mind can be reported verbatim without the mediation of "he thought." Yet I don't believe it ever feels as wholly subjective as the first-person equivalent, where we are aware that the whole text belongs to the perceptions and voice of the narrator. Third-person limited is slightly more distant, because there is the hint of a non-character narrator (no matter how self-effacing or transparent that narrator may be).

That hint of an independant narrator also allows third-person limited to reach a little farther up the scale toward omniscience than first-person. Reporting of facts, and conclusions drawn from them, are more credible in a third-person POV, as we believe there is an objective narrator hiding somewhere back behind the curtain. Push this too far, however, and the narrative form spills over into full third-person.

Third-person has the greatest range of psychic distance. Although I don't believe it can ever get quite as intimate as first-person--the narrator lurking in the background always makes us conscious of a gap, though it may be small--the third-person voice can range up and down the psychic-distance scale, and, wielded skillfully, can also range through the minds of characters, even non-human characters. It is certain that the full third-person is the POV that offers the most freedom; but it also creates corresponding problems of control and balance. (Above all, a writer who wants to assume full omniscience must create an authorial voice for the novel that the reader accepts unconditionally. In our cynical and suspicious times, such a voice is most often humorous, satirical, or ironic; this is one reason Austen and Voltaire still seem so fresh and readable to the modern eye.)

Second-person, as I will discuss in a later post, is a slippery little devil--very much like first-person that refuses to admit it is first-person. Although it is subjective, the constant use of 'you' keeps us at a distance from the narrator's inner being; and this evasive quality makes the narrator's observations on events and larger truths seem even more suspect than in the first person. The result is that while second-person can be quite powerful, it works only in a narrow range.

For first-person (and also, to a less-important extent, in second-person and third-person limited) there is a critical additional third dimension not shown on the graph--the choice of past or present tense. Since in first-person narration, the narrator is also the POV character, in principle when first-person narration is done in past tense, the narrator is capable of looking back and reflecting, of playing the 'had I but known' game; the narrator knows what will happen next. This cannot be done if the narrator is locked into present tense. (Some novels have it both ways. For example, Leslie Schwartz's Jumping the Green alternates between chapters of first-person past and first-person present, so that the same narrator can tell what happened as she was growing up and then can switch to the uncertainty of telling what is happening right now.)

Why all this talk about range? Because not every kind of POV will work for every kind of story. Writing an epic in second-person might be an interesting exercise, but it's doubtful that second-person would serve the scope best. If the story requires moving across a wide range of psychic distances and multiple minds, nothing but true third person is likely to work. If you're writing War and Peace, you'll need the full range from omniscient down to subjective, as well as the span of multiple characters. If you're writing The Old Man and the Sea, you have more choices of how to go about it.

Choosing the wrong POV for your story is the easiest way I know to saw off the branch upon which you're seated. If you've gone to the trouble to find the right voice for the story, started all the gears in motion, and then you find can't tell the things you need to tell, the problem can't usually be fixed by changing "I" to "he." Believe me, I've been there.

Novelist Raymond Obstfeld has discussed ways of reviving a novel when it simply isn't working. His first suggestion is changing the names of the main characters to try and readjust your subconscious relationship with them. (I've never done this, but I've seen it work for people.)

His second-line, more drastic attempt at salvage is to change the POVs and narrative strategy--either jump from, say, third to first, or, even change the POV characters without changing the cast.

Does this have an impact? You bet. Because when you change POVs, you are actually writing another book, a book with a different set of possibilities and often a different range of available psychic distances.

It's easier if you pick the right narrative structure and POVs before you've written a couple of hundred pages.

It's also easier said than done. Even if you have a graph.

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Janet said...

What is so inner about your pedant?


Interesting stuff, as usual. I have nothing of value to add, except that I don't understand the aversion to omniscient POV either. Still, to be on the safe side, I avoided it, although I couldn't resist the occasional zoom-out to close a chapter.

Alis said...

How true all this is. Having the wrong POV characters was what held me up for over a year in writing the current book. I'll be quicker to realise what's going on next time but thanks for crystalising so many of my own scattered thoughts into a coherent post!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

I have an inner one and an outer one. They take turns.

I tend to start high and zoom in at chapter openings. In fact, I do it too often, and have had to vary my approach. It gets repetitious.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I haven't made every mistake possible in this area myself. But give me time--I'll probably make them all sooner or later.

Anonymous said...

Very clearly put, David. Clearly first person can get up closer than any third person (though what about in free indirect discourse - when the protatogists thoughts are given directly? That leaves behind questions of first and third altogether). But that's different from having access to characters' consciousness. Doritt Cohn argues that a first-person narrator can't give you things that they can't articulate. Whereas a third-person narrator can articulate things the character can't, including things they're incapable of thinking, and feelings they're incapable of describing.

I also rather like Byatt's replacement term for 'omnisicient'. She talks about a 'knowledgeable' narrator, which I rather like: it leaves behind the god-like connotations, which seem to 19th century, without restricting it to what Gardner calls the 'claustrophobia' of a limited PoV.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

First, thanks again for steering me to Cohn's book; one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a while.

You raise a very good question. I pondered the problem of direct rendering of thought--which seems on the face of it to be identical between first and third--while I was drawing up that silly graph. After thinking about it for some time, my conclusion was this: While any given passage where thoughts are reported directly may be equally close whether in third or first person, the reader's sense of intimacy is affected by the whole text, not just that passage. If we have established there is a narrative consciousness separate from the POV character, I think we are always aware that there is a 'reporter' involved. I think that at a preconscious level this holds us at a slight distance, even when the consciousness of the POV character is rendered as "unmediated" in particular passsages. Does that make sense, or am I on thin ice here?

I agree with Cohn's idea that a first-person narrator can't directly tell us things they can't articulate; but I would note that in skilfull hands, the writer can cause the reader to understand things the narrator can't articulate or doesn't even know. Naive or unreliable narrators can convey all manner of narrative unintentionally.

"Knowledgeable" would be a nice substitute for "omniscient," not only because of the baggage "omniscient" carries, but also because so many writers nowadays think the definition of "omniscient" is nothing more than "head-hopping."

I wrote one novel where the narrative voice was "faux-omniscient"--that is, there were long digressions on the nature of just about everything in the universe; and, after a bit, the credibility of this know-it-all voice started to stretch thin. It's certainly the most fun I ever had writing. Whether it is as much fun to read is another matter entirely.

Janet said...

I just read the most entertaining version of an unreliable narrator who was totally clueless and lacking in self-knowledge but who makes you see her more clearly than she could see herself. That was in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, the 19th century mystery story that basically created the template. The entire story is told in the first person by different people who were involved and is a wonderful example of the use of voice, among other things. The second person was a constipated, overly religious spinster, who is obviously supremely insensitive and annoying but remains convinced of her own moral superiority. She was a wee bit hard to take, but it's fascinating how Collins used her words to tell us more about her than she herself knew.

Tim Stretton said...

This is a great survey of the topic, David. POV rarely gets the analysis it deserves but practitioners will recognise that it's the fundamental of any story.

One of my favourite POV games is "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd". Without that particular POV it's just another mystery story.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I do agree that telling more through a narrator than the narrator knows is one of my favourite technical games.

Following on from the knowledgeable narrator (thank you A S Byatt), and the unreliable narrator, who actually lies or deceives and we can't trust, John Mullan has come up a lovely term for the intermediate (and much more common than truly unreliable) kind, which is an inadequate narrator - the classic example is Christopher in the Curious Incident. They're not trying to deceive, but equally there's a lot they're not conveying.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Wow, "The Moonstone." I haven't read that in a thousand years.

I had a professor (who was so old that he probably bought it when it first appeared) strongly urge it upon me back in college. Since he was my committee chair, his advice was hard to ignore. And it turned out to be a great book--but I read it without my writerly hat on.

From your description, it seems I ought to revisit it.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

I've never made up my mind about Ackroyd. Sometimes it seems good, sometimes it seems like a gimmick.

Dare I say, without having things thrown at me from around the globe, that something quite similar is at work, though in a more complex fashion, in McEwan's "Atonement"?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

"Inadequate" narrator. Interesting. Very similar to (possibly the same as?) the idea of a naive narrator, though without the connotation of youth and/or innocence.

Janet said...

Free download online at You see what you miss by not subscribing to my blog? ;o)

It's probably worth reading as a study of voice alone. And how to write unreliable narrators so the reader sees through them. Gabriel Betteredge (was that it? names fade so fast from my memory.) talks tough about women in theory, but is an old softie with any real woman. I mean, his idea of putting his wife in her place was to cook his own supper and clean up after himself. LOL! Now that's showing her. And he presents this with a perfectly straight face to another man as an object lesson on how to get firm with a woman. Gotta love it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

As it happens, I still have a decades old copy sitting on my shelf--one that has moved from house to house somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 times. I knew that hanging onto books was a good policy.

I don't subscribe to any feeds at all--largely because my inbox is already swamped. In my inbox, feeds are like someone shouting at a heavy metal concert--you might or might not notice their lips moving, but you certainly aren't going to hear them!

Janet said...

That is the first time I have ever seen an inbox compared to a heavy metal concert. That is brilliant. (You need a Google page, obviously.)

Tim Stretton said...

"I've never made up my mind about Ackroyd. Sometimes it seems good, sometimes it seems like a gimmick."

Both, I reckon.

Sometime I'm going to do a post about Christie - showing what you can do with all plot and no characterisation (Poirot - moustache and a couple of cod-French catchphrases, n'est-ce pas? Yet she spins him out for about 50 books...). I'd rather have that than the lit-fic opposite, packed with artsy-fartsy and no plot...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

There's a whole category of stories that are are charming for reasons I can't put my finger on--without really being "good novels." For me, Christie falls into that class--more of a puzzle or cartoon than a world. And some people seem to like nothing better than cozies; some people read little else.

When I read them, I have to make the same kind of changes in my expectations that I do when I see a musical comedy rather than a serious drama.

But I look forward to your post--it's fertile ground.

(I just bought an academic book entitled "Reading for Plot." What a curious idea!)