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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11 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

David, good to see you back on the blog and back on form.

You're right to suggest that third person is a continuum, not a series of boxes. Part of the reason it's difficult (and why, despite all the warnings to the contrary, first person is an easier stance to master) is managing the transitions. And sometimes I think the more you think about it, the harder it is to do...

Neil said...

Good to have you back David.

I've a feeling that Neil Gaiman's American Gods is an attempt at Thrd Person Limited, but I haven't got the book nearby and was a while back I read it.

Alis said...

Hi David! Great to have you back - hope you're feeling OK?

Your comments have reminded me how much I like The Old Man and the Sea (the only novel of his I ever did like). I must go back and read it again.

RDJ said...

Good stuff, sir. Nice to see a post from you.

As for third-person objective limited, I think The Maltese Falcon is the closest thing to it I've read. I'm not sure it holds to it throughout, but I know that was Hammett's aim, and, based on my admittedly faulty memory, he came close to achieving it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, transitions. From distant to close, from subjective to more objective, from close POV to omniscient, from head to head...

That's where craft gives way to art. There's no way I know of to structure transitions apart from selecting what feels right.

That, of course, isn't going to prevent me from blathering on about it in a further post.

David Isaak said...

Hiya, Neil--

You're spot on--at least for the bulk of the book. (As it happens, I have a copy of "American Gods" at hand. Well, actually I had to fetch it from the next room.) From a brief scan, all of the protagonist's (Shadow's)scenes do indeed seem to be rather strcitly third-person limited. But when he switches to other characters he moves away from character POV and gets a bit more omniscient. It makes for a rather interesting pattern.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I'm feeling a whole lot better than I have over the preceding nine months or so.

I'm with you on Hemingway. I don't think he was a novelist; I think he was a short-story writer. That said, I love both "The Old Man and the Sea" and "The Sun Also Rises."

But, then--they're short!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Ryan--

Good one. "Maltese Falcon" hews very closely to third-person limited. (I say this not from memory, but because I went and grabbed the book off the shelf.)

The one major exception is the opening paragraph, which describes in some detail the physical appearance of Sam Spade (ending with the charming line "He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.") But after that he pans in and seems to stay tight in Spade's POV.

Jen said...

Hi David! Welcome back! Missed you.

I agree Hemingway did better at short stories than he did at novels, but he's Hemingway so he's entitled to get away with just about anything. Consider the curious case of For Whom The Bell Tolls . It's a novel, and a long one, and it's breathtaking. But wait! Get into its structure a little more and -- it's a collection of short stories!! Every five pages or so, one of the characters steps in with, "Wait, I will tell you." And we get an entirely different narrative from an entirely different point of view for a little while. In fact I've come to believe that this book wasn't so much a novel as it was a love letter to Spain and all the people Hemingway met over there. Earnest, old buddy, we miss you. Best to your many cats.

Jen, first prelate of the Church of Hemingway

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jen--

That's perhaps the most perceptive analysis of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that I've ever seen becasue it goes straight to the point, and emphasizes the book's strong points, while admitting its weaknesses. (Well, it has a couple of others--a little too "mannered" in places, and a couple of odd passages that are the Hemingway equivalent of purple prose.) But, yes, it reads like interlocked stories, and therefore lacks the full-body-blow impact of a novel.

I think that Fitzgerald was right, and that there is a bit of a peasant in every novelist--someone who slogs away. Ernie would probably punch my lights out for saying this, but he was really more of a ballet dancer or gymnast: light on his feet and given to the spectacular rather then the cumulative effect.

No wonder he was so concerned with keeping up his macho image.

Jen said...

(Preen) Why thank you. He only wore his tutu when nobody was looking. (Or so he thought...)

Btw, I quoted you again in my blog. Sorry, but you're just so darn quotable.