Narrative point of view

I lead a monthly writers’ group in San Rafael. Last night the topic was point of view and our discussion was so interesting I decided to try encapsulating it in a blog. Why not?

So here we go. I’m already afraid this is going to be long but oh well.

First person.

Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with the dog because it happened to me and I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me.

…Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

We like how immersive this point of view can be, how it reveals in every sentence the narrator’s perspective and the lens through which they filter reality. We like how the inherent unreliability of a single perspective adds complexity to the story. As writers, we like the opportunity to develop a unique character voice. As readers, we love getting inside a character’s head, inhabiting their experiences and history and emotions. (Someone somewhere has done a lot of research on how what we read impacts us physically through hormones and such, I bet. But I can’t come up with any hard links at the moment. Some day.)

Some interesting variations on first-person narratives include the frame narrator (The Great Gatsby), the unnamed frame narrator (Heart of Darkness), first person omniscient (The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief), first person plural (The Virgin Suicides), the highly unreliable narrator (The Egyptologist, Pale Fire), the author as narrator (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), first person with multiple viewpoints (A Map of the World), and first person epistolary (Les Liaisons Dangereuses).

Second person.

You wake up on a Saturday morning. Instead of watching cartoons or playing outside, you decide to make a potion. A zombie potion! With a zombie potion, people will do whatever you say. And you know just the people to use it on. Your grandparents!

…Anson Montgomery, Your Grandparents Are Zombies! (Choose Your Own Adventure)

Straight to the weird stuff, folks. It’s immersive, yet distancing! At the same time! And weird!

Notable examples: Bright Lights, Big City and A Man Asleep.

Third person.

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

…Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Back to familiar ground. We like this POV for the buffer it provides between us and the most abrasive, unredeemable narrators. (To this day I’m not sure how Bret Easton Ellis managed to make American Psycho so engaging.) Omniscient narrators can be a lot of fun, but as a writer, how do you preserve some mystery when your narrator can look into time and space and the innermost thoughts of your characters?

Break it down, baby: third person limited–AKA subjective (The Hobbit), third person limited with multiple viewpoints (A Game of Thrones), third person omniscient (War and Peace), and third person objective (“Hills Like White Elephants”–if anyone knows of a novel written in this POV, I’d love to hear about it).

For no reason, here’s a photo of some flowers.

belladonna lilies, AKA naked ladies

belladonna lilies, AKA naked ladies, so I can say there are naked ladies on my blog

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