Friday, June 15, 2007

POV, Psychic Distance and Voice

Below are some definitions of basic terminology relating to Point of View (POV), as well as some related thoughts, possibilities and challenges. This is meant to clarify some terms, and maybe give some ideas for things you might want to try, or alternatively watch out for, in your writing. It's not, however, meant to be exhaustive.

First Person
The narrator is one of the characters in the story, and uses the word "I" to refer to him- or herself.

The first person narrator can be the protagonist. For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck Finn tells his own story.

The first person narrator can be a supporting character, telling someone else's story. For example, The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway narrates the story of Jay Gatsby. Or the Sherlock Holmes stories, where Dr. Watson narrates stories about Sherlock Holmes.

Stories can be told by alternating between a number of first person narrators. For example, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

The first person can also represent the author as character. Milan Kundera makes use of this in some of his novels, where the author appears as a character, referring to himself as "I."

A writer can also use first person plural, telling the story from the point of view of "we." For example, William Faulkner's story, "A Rose for Emily."

Finally, there's a use of first person, particularly in some 19th century novels, where the story is told in third person, but an "I" storyteller appears at one or more points in the story. For example, Charles Bovary's unnamed classmate, who appears as the "I" narrator at the beginning of Madame Bovary, but then never appears again in a novel otherwise told in third person omniscient.

Second Person
The narration uses "you."

The second person "you" can be the protagonist, and appear to reference the reader him- or herself. The main example of a novel being Jay McInerney's Big Lights, Bright City. I've also read a few short stories using "you" as the protagonist's, which I thought worked, though none come to mind at the moment. (There were a bunch of second person stories--usually in present tense--that surfaced after McInerney's novel, and I suspect winning an editor over with a present-tense, second-person story is still an uphill battle. That said, if you do it well enough, anything can work.)

The second person "you" can also be a character to whom the narrator is telling the story. This device is most common in lyric poetry, where there is often an "I" narrator talking directly to a "you" who is a character in the work, often his/her lover. For example, Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress":
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

This is much less common in fiction--I can't think of an example off the top of my head. However, I think it would make for an interesting technique to explore fictionally.

Third Person
The narrator uses "he" or "she." (Or, in third person plural "they," though I can't think of example of that off the top of my head.)

The third person omniscient narrator knows everything, can go inside any character's head, can be at any scene, can tell any fact whether or not any of the characters know it, can give his/her own interpretation of events--the narrator is basically the god of that fictional universe. Many of those great 19th century novels were in third person omniscient. For example, Stendhal's The Red and the Black.

The third person limited narrator can show any scene the viewpoint character was present at, and can relate the thoughts and subjective experiences of the viewpoint character. The viewpoint character can remain the same throughout the story. Most short stories that use third person limited follow a single POV character. And some novels do this also. For example, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is third person limited, from the viewpoint of Stephen Daedalus through the whole novel. Or the viewpoint character can switch. Many novels, and a few short stories, use third person limited, but switch between different characters. For example, John Kennedy Toole's novel Confederacy of Dunces uses third person limited, and shifts between the viewpoint of many different characters. Third person limited has become the most common POV used, and I've heard some editor's express a preference for it (along with a preference for past tense over present tense). I do think it's currently the safest POV, in the sense that no one is going to be put off by a writer choosing to use third person limited.

One of the challenges of third person limited (particularly in stories told from a single third person limited POV, as short stories tend to be) is having access to the events you want to use to tell the story. In third person limited, your POV character has to be present at that scene, or at least have learned about it in a plausible way. However, solving this challenge by jumping around between different POV characters carries its own challenges, particularly in short stories: you run the risk (at minimum) of losing a strong reader identification with your protagonist, or (at worse) confusing the hell out of the reader.

POV and Psychic Distance
Within third person omniscient and third person limited the distance (I believe at one point John Gardner called it "psychic distance") between the narrator and the character's experience exists along a continuum. So, all of the following can exist within a third person omniscient narration.

- In the city of P., there lived a man who sold clocks, albeit unsuccessfully.

- Samuel Derrick owned a struggling clock store in Pittsburgh.

- Sam leaned against the counter. Seventeen days since he'd sold a clock.

- Sam felt the counter's edge press into his belly, but didn't move. He almost enjoyed the discomfort--it was immediate, concrete, unlike the dread that his shop was going under.

- Dammit. Sam banged his belly against the counter, enjoyed the sharp pain. Was a customer ever going to walk through the door?

Not claiming any of those are breathless prose. But they all exist along a continuum of third person possibilities. And much fiction moves between those various psychic distances. So a third person omniscient voice can duck in to capture a character's stream of consciousness thoughts, or pull back to describe the history of the town they are in.

POV and Voice
There is another important aspect of all this. Within third person narration, particularly third person limited, one constantly has to decide to what extent the narrative voice is going to capture the voice of the character, and to what extent it is going to access vocabulary, understanding, etc., the the character doesn't have access to.

So, if the writer is using third person limited and the POV character is a child, he can use a third person voice that to some extent works within the child's verbal range. For example, the opening of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

Or, the author can use his full range of vocabulary, diction and understanding when describing the child's POV. For instance, the ending of Chekhov's story "The Cook's Wedding," from the POV of seven-year-old Grisha:
Again a problem for Grisha: Pelageya was living in freedom, doing as she liked, and not having to account to anyone for her actions, and all at once, for no sort of reason, a stranger turns up, who has somehow acquired rights over her conduct and her property! Gisha was distressed. He longed passionately, almost to tears, to comfort this victim, as he supposed, of man's injustice. Picking out the very biggest apple in the storeroom he stole into the kitchen, slipped it into Pelageya's hand, and darted headlong away.

In this passage, though from Grisha's POV, Grisha's experience is not reported through the language and syntax of a seven year old.

So, the writer can either try to capture the POV character's language, diction and understanding in his third person narrative, or the writer can access thoughts, allusions and language the POV character wouldn't use him- or herself. One caution--this second choice can create a technical challenge when the character talks, if the narrative voice is extremely dissimilar from the character's.
Tom moved through each day like a soldier's ghost from Renoir's La Grande Illusion, through a world in which old verities were upended, and existence tenuous as dusk's last light.

"Dude, this bites," Tom said.

It's important to manage (and modulate) the differences in language and diction between the narrator and the character when writing in third person. Particularly in dialog scenes if the author uses a formal and/or poetic style, and the character speaks plainly.

Anyway, there's a quick tour through some POV issues, and a couple of related issues as well. That's not to say you won't come across schools of thought and writers who use some of the terms slightly differently. And the term "psychic distance," which I think I got from John Gardner, is not a generally used term, like the others used above. However, I personally find it a useful concept.

As with any element of fiction, the most important thing in studying POV is to read widely, write lots, think and experiment. Ultimately, what one wants from their study of POV is not a set of rules, but a sense of mastery that comes through in confident writing, and a wide range of available options to use in telling your stories.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so, so glad that second person is not more widely used. I tried to read Tom Robbins' Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas and failed because on the first page he told me I was craving a cigarette. I smoked at the time, but a different brand, and that was enough to keep me from really getting into the narration. It seems funny that such a small thing could do it, but it's the details, I think, that draw you into a world - or keep you out.

June 15, 2007 7:37 PM  

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