August 17, 2010

The Complexities of Point of View

What I’m Reading Today: The first little bit of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (thanks, Brad!). I’m loving it. What a strong and fascinating style.

Point of view is so much more complex than simply first-, second-, or third-person. There are so many variables to consider. Once you’ve decided on first or third (second isn’t really an option, unless it’s a short story), you’ve got so much more to think about. Past or present tense? Future tense? Usually, the emotional/character arc should be in the point of view character, but sometimes, in addition to the story being about the person talking, it’s mainly about some other character viewed from the outside (think The Great Gatsby). Sometimes the narrator all but disappears but is definitely there, as in Victorian novels. So narrator vs. point of view character vs. protagonist. Some people call how present the narrator is “obtrusiveness.” Tone and reliability of the narrator (think Lolita) are other considerations. Distance ~ how deep inside the head the point of view goes and how it varies ~ is another.

A lot of these considerations come about naturally. For example, the reliability of the narrator has a lot to do with the character of the narrator. I don’t think people set out thinking, “I’m going to create an unreliable narrator.” No, they think, “This guy’s a little shady, and he’s not going to tell the truth.”

But I think it’s good to know your own weaknesses. Some people may always be so immersed inside a character’s head that action and plot basically disappear (think Proust and Joyce). That is not my problem however. I’ve inherited that Western stoicism/sparity, a la Hemingway or McCarthy or Carver. I have a tendency to write characters who withhold. They don’t talk about their feelings, and often they aren’t even consciously aware of much about their feelings. And they certainly wouldn’t talk about them. Plus, distance in this tradition is almost always held outside the body. If it goes into interiority or introspection or recollection, it’s only briefly. You get only hints of what’s going on inside a character. The reader has to be really alert because the only hints that are given are subtle ~ in body language or small verbal hints. You have to really tune your ear.

So this is one of my weaknesses: I don’t give enough interiority nor introspection. Even if I have characters who withhold and don’t know what’s going on inside them, the reader needs more. That’s where a narrator comes in, which gets complex when you’re doing first-person. It’s as if first-person is actually a lot closer to third-person.

I’m working my way through it ~ I’m revising a novel and adding more of it.

Questions of the Day: Do you have a narrative stance that comes naturally? Are there parts of point of view you struggle with?

PS Not to make this post too long, but I have some shout outs I've been meaning to give for a week!  Congrats to Bonnie ZoBell for her great stories in JMWW ("The Writer as Rapist"), elimae ("Sandwich"), and Night Train ("Black Friday")! And your rock, James Gill! Great story "Birds of Winter" up at Fried Chicken and Coffee.  Finally, Kevin Canty's new book Everything is getting rave reviews, and I can't wait to read it!  Check out the New Yorker, NPR, and the New York Times.  I urge you to immediately go out and purchase a copy of Everything!

1 comment:

Brad Green said...

I typically dislike 2nd person. It's so often mere gimmickry. I read tons of otherwise dull stories in the submission queue that try to pimp themselves up with that POV and it hardly ever works.