Listen to Pilot Light

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Significant Point of View

Everyone has a point of view and so does every story. And the viewpoint is intricately wound into the totality of the story--it is significantly important.
I recall a line from a creature called the Churkengoose. This was a story record I had when I was little. He said: “It depends on how you look at things.” There are lots of truths in kids literature and songs and this one is a biggie for writers. A story not only depends on how you look at things, it also depends on who looks at things. We call that the point of view--or POV, seeing as we humans seem to be in love with acronyms.
In literature, point of view refers to the narrative mode, the perspective of the narrative voice; the pronoun used in narration.
That isn't all that helpful, really, so here is a little elaboration for your consideration.
A story can be told in the first (I), second (you), or third (he or she) point of view, for instance, although the second isn’t used that often, except in essays such as this. That gives us who is telling the story, sort of. It describes the perspective we are getting.
Detective stories are often told in first person. “I walked into the room and found her body.” That sort of thing. If you want some variety, “He walked into the room and found her body,” can work too, but it’s a different choice and the story flows along a different path.
It’s tricky to do well, but unlike those of us walking through real life, a storyteller can change viewpoints, showing different parts of the story from a different perspective. And the viewpoint doesn’t have to be that of a character. The narrator can be someone outside the story, maybe remembering what she was told happened at some point in time or a fly on the wall.
I’ve been thinking about these and discussing them with my noveleering friend Bob, who often has multiple viewpoints on things, and we decided it would be fun to categorize some approaches.
Most people have heard of the omniscient viewpoint, which simply means the writer can tell you about anything that happens in the world. Limiting the viewpoint to one or two characters means you can only let readers see what those characters see. That means omniscience is handy if the characters don’t get out much. It’s also very useful if you are some sort of deity. After all, what’s the point of knowing everything if you can’t show it to the reader? Unless of course you write in mysterious ways (Deity option #4).
In an attempt to provide insight into something or other, Bob and I have come up with a few variations for our own work. I’ve started a novel that takes place in Cambodia. I’ve chosen to tell the tory in the first person so it includes things the main character thinks he sees, as well as the things he actually sees. (After all, we all see things that aren’t there, right? I hope I’m not the only one.) I’ve been flirting with two concepts here—“first person hallucinogenic” and “first person omnivorous,” which is my favorite, because the character is consumed by what he sees. The term hallucinogenic also has the unfortunate connotation that he’s on drugs, and he isn’t. I think it is lost in our contemporary culture that it is possible to hallucinate without taking drugs, and that’s my preferred course. Not only is it healthier, it’s cheap, like me.
Bob is toying with a “first person psychic” viewpoint. This POV lets the writer present what the main character envisions is going on in the heads of other characters. We aren’t sure how useful that will be to storytelling, but it has a lot of interesting potential. It might revolutionize fiction writing, or at least serve as the premise for a lot of stupid science fiction stories.
Camus, of course, single-handedly explored the depths of the “depressed first and third person, in fact everyone you meet depressed” POV, just as Kerouac took on the “first person totally lost” POV. Milan Kundera makes effective use of the “rather cynical narrator” POV which is a modernized version of Willie Maugham’s “don’t you wish you were me, narrator” POV. If you are feeling really adventurous, you can follow a strategy that Kundera and some others use—resort to a metafiction POV in which the author makes up a character right in front of you and proceeds to treat them as if they are a “real” character.
Armed with these useful insights, as you read various writers, see if you can step outside the conventional POV term and identify what theirs really is. It won’t get you anything but some extra entertainment, but it’s interesting to think about. You might even find out how things look from the writer’s perspective—how he or she looks at things.