fifth talk: look who’s talking


The not-so-obvious place to start thinking about point of view is to recognize that we each have a point of view. Like so much else that informs the craft of fiction, point of view is about the recognition that there are many ways to look at a thing. The conflicts that are inherent in the life of a Midwestern college professor might look like paradise to a Central Asian subsistence farmer and vice versa. Conflict, also, is always inherent in point of view, too. Even the broadest point of view – God’s, perhaps – can’t possibly be happy about everything. In fact, in most literary representations of God, He’s happy about very little.

The way I look at point of view, in fact, is on a continuum from the most information possible to the least information possible. The question that the writer will ask herself is: how much will I allow the reader to see and understand? The broadest point of view is God’s (or omniscience, which is another way of saying “God’s”) and the narrowest point of view is, let’s say, a camera. A range of possibilities exist between these two extremes, and it may not be appropriate for the fiction writer to even begin to determine where his story lives until after a few drafts have made that clear. Point of view is a kind of game. Any point of view if limiting in some way, and limits are what allow us to play a game. Point of view is also the contract between the writer and the reader that allows the game to be played.

Let me give you a few examples of fictional point of view:

This narrator can go into Dan Barden’s head, but no one else’s. It can show everything that happens in any room where Dan is. It is only as smart as Dan and only as sensitive as Dan.

This narrator is omniscient, and that omniscience is not only all knowing but also all loving. Except that, for some reason, the omniscience hates American football.

This narrator is super incredibly smart, but not omniscient. That is, it is capable of knowing everything there is to know about local geology, history, and traffic laws. It knows everything that anyone has ever written or said. It is familiar with all human skill and technology. In other words, it knows everything that anyone can know with good research skills, but it doesn’t know anything supernatural and it can’t read people’s minds.

This narrator is circumscribed by the consciousness and taste of a fourteen-year-old boy who can, of course, write coherent paragraphs and tell a great story. Two things that fourteen-year-olds can almost never do.

You may notice that I’m not talking about first person, second person, and third person. And I’m really not talking about third person omniscient. The reason is that I no longer believe in those distinctions. I’ve read first person narratives that really belonged in the mind of God and third person omniscient narratives that were folks who I’d like to get drunk with. It’s not as simple as the classifications that they gave you in high school. The whole point of view question became much easier for me to understand when I realized that all points of view were based in the perception of one character whether the writer wants to admit this or not. Someone is talking. Someone is telling the story. Even a narrative that comes directly from the mind of God is inevitably limited. Your job – and, again, this may not happen until a later draft – is to decide who that someone is. It was fashionable for a while to tells stories from multiple points of view. Personally, I don’t think that worked so well. Most of those books seemed to me to fall into two traps: 1) of trying too hard to distinguish between voices that weren’t that distinct, or 2) actually telling the story from the same point of view and pretending that they weren’t. Maybe those two objections are the same objection. The point is this: point of view should serve the story rather than the other way around. The only real question here is Who can best tell this story. Richard Russo has said that the older a writer gets, the easier it is for him to imagine the power and efficacy of a third person omniscient narrator. My guess is that Russo is right, that most people over forty are more concerned to know the mind of God than they were two decades earlier, and maybe there’s a little bit of sucking up going on, too.

I think that mostly point of view is not such a big deal. If, as a reader, you’re spending a great deal of time wondering where a story is coming from rather than what the story is, then you’re probably writing a paper for an English class and not actually reading. I think most readers are willing to follow a good narrator anywhere so long as the narrator doesn’t violate the rules that he himself has established. This is one of those places where the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” can be threatened. In other words, if you’ve been a camera throughout the story, you want to be careful that you don’t suddenly, when it’s convenient to you, start reading minds. And if you’ve been a nameless Godlike voice for the first half of the story, you need to recognize that your reader may be stopped by a sudden and passionate hatred of Italians. The bottom line is that you can do almost anything you want with point of view so long as you don’t jar the reader’s consciousness. Although much is made the “the rules” of point of view, the bottom line is this: the reader will follow your narrator anywhere if he trusts her.

The other important thing to recognize about point of view is that it determines the story in many ways both gross and subtle. You want to be careful that you account for your own prejudice as much as possible. As Michael Cunningham once said in a talk I heard, he tries to give every character in his books, even the least significant, as much dignity and depth as he can imagine. Even the bit players are seeing the world from inside their own underwear and if you move them around without regard for that fundamental human fact, their performance in your fiction will seem contrived. Remember that there were people who loved Adolf Hitler. You may not want to tell your story from the vantage of their consciousness, but it would be inhumane (and bad writing) to pretend that they don’t have a vantage. Figure out the place where your story wants to be told from, but then…

…tell your story.

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