Sunday, June 28, 2009

POV Part VIII: The Wide World of Third-Person, Section 2

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Back in my tinyhood, when I was being hustled through a bewildering array of church denominations, one of the catechism classes I attended taught me that God Almighty had three key attributes: He was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnivorous. Well, something like that. I admit I wasn't paying full attention.

As far as I know, only one of these--omniscient--is a narrative stance, but damned if I know what it means. Strictly taken, it means that the narrator knows everything, but as used in common writing parlance it is more a source of confusion than anything else. (The narratologists have tried to clarify things a bit, and have their own more-precisely targeted terminologies, though they are still locked in battle with one another. Emma Darwin once recommended an excellent book on the topic, Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds. If you care for such things, it's a great read--but be warned that, although readable and stimulating, it doesn't purport to be anything other than purely academic. Indubitable proof of this is in the pricing--$37.50 for a paperback.)

The omniscient narrative voice was the dominant approach of the nineteenth century, and its gradual displacement in the twentieth century has often been attributed to the supposed philosophic transition of the modern mind: The "death of god," loss of meaning, and increasing moral relativism, according to this theory, made an all-knowing narrator seem implausible to readers.

This makes for a nice story, but I think it's poppycock. (That seemingly insipid word, by the way, is from the Dutch pappekak, which literally means "soft or wet shit." Makes it a touch more vivid, doesn't it?) Although Somerset Maugham said that in his brash youth he adored an omniscient point of view, while as he grew older and less certain of anything he felt increasingly uncomfortable in anything but first-person, he is talking about his own writing process, not about what readers are willing to accept. In general, I don't think most readers have a problem with anything that stops short of knocking them out of the story, and I don't believe many readers wonder "How does the narrator know all these things?" any more than most movie-goers are wondering "How did there happen to be a camera there when all these events transpired?"

Some of the common conventions of older omniscient writing--for example, the direct address of "Dear Reader"--do draw the attention of the reader to the artifice of a novel. When done deliberately, this is often thought of as having a distinctly meta-fictional, post-modern flavor of the sort found in Barth or Vonnegut, but there is nothing new under the sun; Sterne took this sort of goofing around to its limits, and there is a distinctly ironic smile behind many of Austen's asides, encouraging us to enjoy the story both on the level of the tale itself as well as drawing our attention to the story as a constructed thing. But such intrusions are not a necessary part of the omniscient voice, and most readers couldn't tell you whether a book they've read is omniscient or not.

When you hang out with writers, you will find "omniscient" to be used inconsistently. It can mean any of the following:

1) A narrative voice that operates independent of any particular point of view and has knowledge that, if not necessarily boundless, is not bound to an individual

2) A third-person narrative voice that knows the future

3) A narrative voice that can enter multiple consciousnesses

Now, a true omniscient stance encompasses (at least as potentialities) all three of those. Among many writers, however, 'omniscient' is more often used as a label of condemnation than as a simple designation.

Complaints about omniscience usually don't include item 1). As discussed in the previous post, even works well-known for being written in the third-person-limited form often deviate into narrative that doesn't have a point of view attributable to any character in the story. This is common for scene-setting and exposition. In thrillers, suspense, horror, and adventure novels, it is often used to rachet up tension: The narrative switches to a description of the hurricane brewing out in the deserted ocean, or to the bomb ticking in the privacy of the vault, or the primeval ooze (contaminated with radiation of course) gradually coalescing into a shape vaguely humanoid. This approach is widely accepted by writers, and probably not even noticed by readers who are not writers themselves.

Item 2), a third-person narrator who knows the future, presents us with a curious situation. Except in the case of present-tense narratives, a narrator must be assumed to be placed somewhere in the future relative to the events being recounted. So the narrator ought to know all manner of things about the future course of the story, and, in principle, readers ought to get annoyed at all that is being withheld from them. Lucky for all of us who ever write in past tense, this doesn't seem to bother paeople.

(The same problem is presented in its starkest form in first-person past-tense. Should the writer tell the tale entirely as perceived by the narrator at the time the events were taking place, or should the narrator also enlarge the story with retrospection by looking back on those events? For purposes of drama and suspense the story is usually stronger without retrospective commentary--though many first-person narratives are bookended with retrospection, while the spine of the tale is related in a more naive fashion.)

What most writers mean when they complain about "omniscience" about the future is that the narrator is engaging in intrusive foreshadowing. There's nothing wrong with foreshadowing--in its sneakier and more symbolic forms it's one of the glories of storytelling--but intrusive foreshadowing of the "Little did he know..." variety is not only often cliche, but usually has the effect of knocking the reader right out of the flow of the story. Bad writers do this in the same way that bad film makers use blaring trumpets to tell us when to pay attention and syrupy violins to tell us when to cry.

On the other hand, the jarring and intrusive effect of this kind of clairvoyance can be used to great effect. For example, recall the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Like most strong effects, these mixings of time need to be used with some caution; but there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about them.

The most common way the word omniscient is (mis)used, however, is as in item 3), meaning writing where the narrative travels into the minds of several characters.

Now, the odd thing about how most people use the term in this sense is that it is restrictive. If you only enter the mind of one character per chapter, they call it "multiple POV third person." And, in fact, if you go into more than one mind per chapter, but have a white-space break between the two POVs, it is still "multiple POV third person" to these folks. It is only talked about (or, more often, complained about) as omniscience when there is no whitespace signal, be it a chapter break or simply some blank lines.

Why the insertion of a few blank lines makes the narrative stance non-omniscient is a puzzle to me, but there it is. I agree it takes more skill to navigate from one mind to another without inserting a clean break, and that if done unskilfully it runs the risk of confusing the reader or diluting the effect of the story, but I'm not sure it constitutes the adoption of an entirely different narrative form.

In the same way that any exposition whatsoever can bring about cries of "info dumping" from a certain kind of writer, any shift in POV consciousness without a break can summon forth accusations of "head-hopping." Now, exposition that is boring or intrusive is generally a bad thing, and the same can be said of modulating between different minds in a jarring or confusing way, but that doesn't mean that exposition or shifting POV are inherently bad. Yet there seems to be a whole generation of writers who have been warned about the dangers of info-dumping and head-hopping and have taken these cautions about technique as moral lessons. It's fine to warn children about the danger of matches, but to see grownups clustering together and urgently whispering, "Fire bad!" is a little unsettling. It might seem as if they are hurting no one but themselves, but these writers might end up as critics or teachers some day.

Since Omniscience = Head-hopping in the minds of many, I'll devote a post or two to the ways different writers have attacked modulation of POV. For me it's always an entertaining topic (although sometimes substantial blocks of text need to be quoted to show the techniques). Plus it will allow me to fill up blog space without the necessity of inventing the sentences myself.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

POV Part VII: The Wide World of Third-Person, Part 1

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I apologize for my long absence from this space. Although since February of 2007 I fancied my self quite the indefatigable blogger, it turns out that in certain circumstances I am quite defatigable indeed.

To tell the truth, I don't really want to write about third-person point of view. It's too damned polymorphous. Some of the techniques involved are fascinating, but the ways third-person can be used are too varied for a nice, clean discussion. In fact, I've never seen a classification of the dimensions of third-person that left me satisfied--and I'm sure to be dissatisfied with what I write here.

Oh, well. Being dissatisfied with what you write is part of being a writer. Here goes.

In first-person singular fiction, the narrator is known (even if unnamed). In first-person plural and second-person fiction, the identity of the narrator is deliberately blurred, hiding behind "we," or the elusive web of meanings of "you."

In third-person fiction, there is usually an unidentified narrator who stands apart from the narrative itself. At one extreme, this narrator knows only what the point-of-view character knows--so-called third-person limited; at the other extreme, the narrator can know everything, the third-person omniscient narrator.

But there is (at the minimum) another dimension to the third-person POV, usually designated as the degree of subjectivity; thus, there can be third-person subjective, or third-person objective. Third-person objective reads much like a camera, avoiding dipping into the character's consciousness; third-person subjective reads much like first-person with "he" or "she" swapped for "I."

Of course, this means that at the corners of our box, we have would have designations such as "third-person objective limited" or "third-person subjective omniscient," and the truth is that narratives are almost never written in such pure forms.

For example, I can't think of a single novel in third-person objective limited. (Perhaps you can; help me out here.) The best example of third-person objective limited POV I can produce (third-person objective limited singular, if you want to be picky) is Roman Polanski's film Chinatown (from the pen of Robert Townes). It is limited--the viewer never gets any information that the POV character isn't digesting at the same time--but it is also objective; we don't peer into the protagonist's mind, or know his inner workings except through his actions. In fact, at moments it is obvious that the protagonist is developing suspicions and theories that are not shared with us, because we know only what can be observed from the outside.

John Gardner once asserted that something was wrong with literature when third-person limited became the dominant narrative stance, but in fact strict third-person limited novels are rare. Third-person limited is popular in mysteries because it, like first-person, allows our understanding to be confined to what the character discovers, while simultaneously allowing the narrator the choice of revealing or concealing any given train of thought of the character. In a first-person detective, withholding thoughts or reasoning from the reader can seem coy or even unfair. Writing in third-person doesn't entirely solve this problem (the topic of withholding deserves a post of its own), but it certainly makes it easier than dodging the candor of most first-person narration.

One of the novels often cited as quintessentially third-person limited is Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, but, like so much said about Hemingway, this is an exaggeration. It's a good example of the use of third-person limited, but it often strays from the limitations of that voice. (I'm not complaining here; I think it's a better book for it.) Let's look at a few examples. The book opens with this:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

Okay, those are all things known to the old man, so we aren't beyond the "limits" of the limited point of view. It continues:

But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.

Hmm. Getting a little further from the old man's direct knowledge here, although perhaps the boy told him all this. But the opening paragraph concludes thus:

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with the skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines of the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks, and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Now, I think this is a fine paragraph (perhaps even good and fine and true). But we are pretty far into what the boy sees and thinks and feels at this point, and that last line ("the flag of permanent defeat")--well, I like it, but it is clearly the viewpoint of the narrator, not the old man. (Further reading nails down the fact that neither the old man nor the boy think in such poetic terms.)

A few pages on, we read this:

They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the the steady good weather and of what they had seen.

And, a bit later:

"Thank you," the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility.

We are clearly standing well outside the old man's limited sphere of consciousness and getting commentary from an independent narrator. In the last pages of the book, in fact, the old man is asleep, and we see what the boy is doing, and in the very last page we are focused on a scene told quite objectively where neither the old man nor the boy are present.

To be fair to those who cite the book as a model of the third-person limited form, the middle of the novella does hew quite closely to narration centered around the limited consciousness of the old man, with little in the way of commentary from an outside narrator. The opening and closing sections of the book are from a much greater psychic distance than the body of the book, and this allows a more omniscient voice to do the heavy lifting of getting the story moving and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion.

Ian McEwan's Saturday is perhaps a better example of strict third-person limited form. A sly writer, McEwan here (and in other novels) slides in information or observations that are probably omniscient but are also plausibly the thoughts of the POV character. For example:

From the second floor he faces the night, the city in its icy white light, the skeltal trees in the square, and thirty feet below, the black arrowhead railings like a row of spears...the streetlamp galre hasn't quite obliterated all the stars; above the Regency facade on the other side of the square hang remnants of constellations in the southern sky. That particular facade is a reconstruction, a pastiche--wartime Fitzrovia took some hits from the Luftwaffe--and right behind is the Post Office Tower, municipal and seedy by day, but at night, half-concealed and decently illuminated, a valiant memorial to more optimistic days.

Are those the thoughts and perceptons of our POV character, or of an independent narrator? Who can tell? McEwan is subtle enough that he can load plenty of information into a scene without it feeling as though there is a narrator intruding.

Mind you, I'm not claiming there is any special virtue in holding to a strict limited POV; I'm simply admiring the fact that McEwan can do it with such flair and without his writing seeming claustrophobic or limited. Most third-person narratives are a mixture of omniscient and limited, objective and subjective, and they are the better for it.

The only note of caution I would sound about bouncing between these four quadrants is that it is best to give the reader some clue as to the range of narrative forms that will be employed. Although the reader may not know quite what is wrong, if you have written chapter after chapter from a very limited, subjective view, if you suddenly drop in a passage where a distant narrator generalizes about the nature of life (or about the nature of the POV character), you run the risk of giving the reader a case of narrative whiplash. If you plan to segue from distant, omniscient views to tight internal POV, it may be best to ring many of the possible chimes early on so the reader can learn to anticipate the range of consciousness of the book. (Unless, of course, you deliberately wish to jar the reader for some reason.)

And what of switching character POVs? That, I'm afraid, is a topic of its own...

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