Thursday, February 27

Point Of View: Elements



Today I'm going to continue talking about the narrator; specifically, about how flexible a third-person narrator can be.

Terminology


I've found many people use "viewpoint character" and "focal character" interchangeably. I don't, so I thought it would be a good idea to be explicit about what I mean by the following terms.

Storyteller: The writer.

Narrator: The entity that recounts the story. He/she/it may or may not be a character.

Viewpoint character: The character the narrator tells the story through. 

Focal character: The protagonist, the main character of the story.

First-Person Perspective


In first person the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. 

For example:
"Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket. The polyester pants were primary Crayola green. His short, black hair was slicked back from a thin, triangular face. He had always reminded me of a bit player in a gangster movie. The kind that sells information, runs errands, and is expendable." (Guilty Pleasures, Laurell K. Hamilton)
Here there is no distance between the narrator and the viewpoint character, they are one and the same. There is, however, distance in time. The narrator looks back through memory and recounts events that have already taken place.

Also, you will notice that in Guilty Pleasures Anita Blake is not only the narrator and viewpoint character, she is the focal character as well. That is typical of first person narratives, though there are notable exceptions: 
"I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books [...]." (A Scandal In Bohemia)
Here, John Watson is the narrator and viewpoint character while Sherlock Holmes is the focal character. Having a separation between the viewpoint and focal characters works well when the storyteller wishes to write in the first person and yet keep certain things hidden from the reader. 

Also, by looking at Sherlock Holmes through John Watson's eyes we find it easier to admire his piercing intelligence and pass off his anti-social behavior as an amusing idiosyncrasy.

Third-Person Perspective


One of the fundamental differences between the first and third person perspectives is that, in third person, the narrator and viewpoint character are not one and the same. While the narrator may have access to the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character he/she/it is a separate entity. 

Another difference between the first and third person perspective is that, in third person, the narrator and the viewpoint character aren't as displaced in time. 

Orson Scott Card writes:
"Even though most third-person accounts are told in past tense, they feel quite immediate. There is not necessarily any sense of the narrator remembering the events. They are recounted as they are experienced. There is no distance in time.

"However, with third person there is distance in space. That is, the narrator, though she can dip into one or more minds, is never a person who is actually there. She is always an invisible observer, always at some distance. So first person is distant in time, third person in space. " (Characters And Viewpoint)
As with the first-person perspective, the viewpoint character doesn't have to be the focal character. That said, there is often little reason to separate the two. It's a good idea to make the viewpoint character the one who is the most active--the one who has goals to achieve and obstacles to overcome.

If you, the storyteller, don't wish the reader to learn something the viewpoint character knows, there isn't the same obligation for you to reveal it since the narrator and viewpoint character aren't the same.

Point Of View: The Elements


Now that I've talked a bit about how I'm using words like "focal character" I wan to talk about several elements, or dimensions, or what-cha-m-call-its that go into forming a point of view. These are:

1. Number of heads.


This refers to the number of heads a narrator can peek into, whether at a time or over the course of a story. 

For example, in third person limited a narrator is restricted to peeking into one and only one mind. In third-person omniscient, on the other hand, a narrator can peek into any character's mind.

2. Depth


Depth has to do with the level of penetration into the viewpoint character's mind. 

Subjective versus Objective


If the narrator has access to the thoughts and emotions of the character then the POV is subjective. If the narrator does not have this access then the viewpoint is objective.

Level of Penetration


As I wrote on Monday, depth of penetration has to do with how deeply into the characters current thoughts and emotions the narrator can go. At the deepest level the voice of the narrator melds with the voice of the character. 

Here's an example from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
That last paragraph is in Big Jim's voice. It's the narrator talking--or so it seems to me--from within the consciousness of Big Jim. 

For instance, look at this fragment: "[...] Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." As I discussed on Monday, Stephen King employs an omniscient narrator in Under The Dome. The narrator knows exactly what Junior's illness is and it's not an eating disorder; the narrator would never say this, not like this. 

So what's happened? It seems to me that, here, the narrator has momentarily dipped down so deeply into the thoughts and feelings--the personality--of the character that he/she/it speaks with Big Jim's voice and with all the limitations that implies. 

Usually, though, in third person narratives the narrator doesn't go quite that deep into the consciousness of the character. For example, here is the beautifully written opening paragraphs of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman:
"The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.

"He had begun the evening by enjoying himself: he had enjoyed reading the good-bye cards, and receiving the hugs from several not entirely unattractive young ladies of his acquaintance; [...]."
Here the narrator knows the superficial thoughts and feelings of the character; he/she/it knows about what an observant passerby would.

Yikes! 1,200 words and counting. I'll continue this post on Friday. Then we'll discuss a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) and transparency. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Bench at sunset" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Photo is based upon Thomas Leuthard's photo, untitled, which he licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

2 comments:

  1. Great post Karen, well-constructed, well-explained. A gift.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Michael! I was worried this post was overly technical, I appreciate your feedback.

      Delete

Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.