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Up From Down Under March 2007

March Issue 2007
 

 

Point of View – Part 2

In Part 1 we defined point of view (POV) as: "the perspective from which a story is told."1

It introduced the difference between Technical POV (who is telling the story) and Thematic POV (how the story is told). Technical POV was expanded to illustrate and differentiate between:

  • common techniques such as First Person Narration and Third Person Narration (including Limited, Multiple and Omniscient), and
  • less common techniques such as Stream of Consciousness, Second Person Narration, and Third Person - Panoramic/Objective.

Our goal in Part 2 is to explore Thematic POV. First, we address the key questions: Why is choosing your POV character so important? How do you choose a POV character? Second, we delve into POV and Voice.

WHY IS CHOOSING YOUR POV CHARACTER SO IMPORTANT?

Why do you have friends? Is it because you like their company? Do you enjoy doing things and going places with your friends?

It's no different when writing and reading stories. The POV character who narrates a story is the author's confidante and the reader's informant. "When you form the habit of identifying with your POV character you'll find it easy to write your stories with a consistent POV, and your reader will feel as if they have found a new friend."2

A reader should develop an intimate relationship with the POV character in a story. After all, they will be sharing every experience. The narrator needs to be at the centre of the action. The reader looks through his eyes, feels the emotions, senses the trickle of sweat and smells the blood.

As an author, you decide how much the narrator knows and how much she'll divulge as the story progresses. The narrator needs the reader's trust. Differences exist in what the reader may expect. A first person narration may create a closer bond with the reader, but the reader won't necessarily believe everything the narrator reveals. First person POV characters may lie, or have blinkered understanding of events, or incorrect interpretations of the emotions and actions of other characters.

Third person narration receives higher regard from readers. They may not feel quite as close to the POV character, but they will tend to trust what the narrator reveals, because of the element of omniscience that is often present.

You can use more than one POV character, but as highlighted in Part 1, don't ‘head-hop' among several characters. Any changes in narration should be smooth and clear.

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE A POV CHARACTER?

Pick the POV appropriate to your audience. "If you are writing for eight-year-old girls, the young girl in the story will be the viewpoint character. Readers want to identify strongly with the central character ... ."3

See the sense of that? The bond between narrator and reader will be stronger if they share much in common. An empathetic rapport is established.

Weigh up your characters. Those that have the most to gain, or lose, will present the best opportunities to hook your readers. "Which (character) has the primary goal, the major conflict? That's the person whose head you should be in ..."4

Writing a romance? If so, the POV choice is obvious. Readers will want to know what's going on in the heads of both protagonists. Write chapters or sections through the eyes of the principal characters as they begin their journeys to meet, greet and complete the relationship. If there's going to be conflict with a third party, which I hope there is or it'll be a boring story, perhaps part of the narration will switch to the bitch or bastard who's getting in the way.

Choose a POV character appropriate to your story, or segment of the story. Consider every angle, particularly your intended audience and the genre.

POV AND VOICE

Nothing is ever simple, and we find three aspects under this heading. First, where is the narrator's voice emanating from? Second, what is the narrator's attitude? Third, does your narrator know when to butt out?

Where is the narrator?

A narrator commonly presents a story as it unfolded in the past, or unfolds in the present. The narrator experiences and reveals the story as it progresses.

However, there are techniques that vary this practice. For example, Professor John Lye of Brock University tells us that "... narration may take various forms: it may be a voice telling the story, but it may also be a diary, or letters, or a discovered manuscript, even an overheard conversation or telephone call."5*

Clearly identify your narrator and any unusual source of the story.

Attitude:

Do your narrators have attitude? They'll be boring if they don't. The ‘attitude' may be sweet and adorable, or it may be mean and nasty, but it's important to the story and the reader's attachment. Attitude must be consistently portrayed, unless the POV character is a moody so-and-so or schizophrenic - in which case the narrator has to be presented as consistently inconsistent (or whatever).

Attitude is a product of internal and external influences. To repeat from Part 1:

"External factors: Race, religion, ideology, culture, and environment are examples of external determinants of a character's actions, reactions or interpretations.

"Internal factors: Abilities, talents, intelligence, language proficiency, personality, speech patterns, and physical disabilities are examples of internal determinants."

In the book "THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME", the narrator is a fifteen-year-old boy. He's autistic, with a photographic memory, and has trouble relating to other people. In the following example, he's reacting to being questioned by a policeman:

"I rolled onto the lawn and pressed my forehead to the ground again and made the noise that Father calls groaning. I make this noise when there is too much information coming into my head from the outside world. ...

"The policeman took hold of my arm and lifted me onto my feet.

"I didn't like him touching me like this.

"And this is when I hit him."6

The author, Mark Haddon, wrote in the first person POV, and succeeds in getting us into the head of the young narrator. The personality of the boy impels the reader through the story.

You, too, should use the attitude and unique personal perspective of your narrator to hook and maintain reader interest.

Attitude determines the narrator's standpoint. They may be attracted, enthralled, enraptured, overwhelmed, or disgusted and repelled by the events narrated. Readers who can't adopt, or at least adapt to, a narrator's attitude, may opt-out of a story.

Viewpoint Intrusion:

Sometimes narrators stick their noses in where they're not needed. Once a reader is aware who the narrator is, an author should keep descriptions and dialogue ‘narrator-free'. It will seem unnatural if every sentence has some phrase referring to the POV character.

Kristen Johnson Ingram illustrates the problem in this manner:

"Sally sits at a table in the restaurant, hoping her boyfriend, Jeremy, won't be late again. She notices the waiter looks tired. She turns to see a pair of Japanese men talking quietly in a booth near the corner. She watches as a baby in a high chair flings a spoonful of rice onto the carpet and sees the waiter sigh."7

In that example of poor practice, Kristen has immediately identified the narrator and then started each sentence with the pronoun "She". Hence, the POV character is thrust at us ad nauseam - she sits, she notices, she turns to see, she watches ... and sees. It's a good way to stifle rapport between narrator and reader.

Kristen's improved version introduces the POV character and then presents the scenario without intrusion:

"Sally sits at a table in the restaurant, hoping her boyfriend, Jeremy, won't be late again. The waiter looks tired. A pair of Japanese men talk quietly in a booth near the corner. A baby in a high chair flings a spoonful of rice onto the carpet, and the waiter sighs."8

Notice the POV character is named once, and no pronouns appear in the new paragraph. The reader still experiences the scene, but isn't squeezed out by the narrator's presence.

A similar problem occurs in dialogue when names or tags are used unnecessarily. Here's an extreme example:

John looked into Mary's brown eyes. He sighed.

"At last we're alone, Mary," he said.

"Yes, finally, John," she replied.

"Are you happy, Mary?" he asked.

"Very happy, John," she said.

Yikes! Whose POV is it, anyway? Let's assume it's John's, and simplify it to read:

John looked into Mary's brown eyes and sighed, "At last we're alone."

"Yes, finally."

"Are you happy?"

"Very happy."

And the moral is? Keep names and pronouns to a minimum. Avoid linking your narrator's identity to every event or occurrence.

*Professor Lye's paper, "Narrative point of view: some considerations", is well worth diligent study. I found it unique in its approach to the subject of POV.

 

References

  1. Point of View. www.nyu.edu/classes/op/writing/old_pointofview1.htm
  2. Snowman, Dorothy: Talk About Point of View, Institute of Children's Literature 2001.
  3. Ibid.
  4. McCutcheon, Pam: Point of View, www.pammc.com/pov.htm
  5. Lye, Professor John: 1 Narrative point of view: some considerations. www.brocku.ca/english/courses/2F55/pt_of_view.html
  6. Haddon, Mark: THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, Red Fox Books (Random House Children's Books), UK, 2004, pp 8, 9.
  7. Ingram, Kristen Johnson: The Intruder. www.writersdigest.com/articles/ingram_intruder.asp
  8. Ibid

 
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