Thursday, June 15, 2017

Good and bad ways to break POV rules

While recently considering Chris Drangle's excellent short story "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," I touched on something that occasionally troubles me both writing and reading in a third-person limited (or "single vision") point-of-view: the distinction between the narrator's voice and the character's voice. I'd wondered about this while reviewing another story I liked before. One reader suggested I was perhaps being a little doctrinaire, so I thought I'd dig a little deeper into this subject. It's actually kind of brushed over in the writing "how to" books. Here is an explanation of 3rd-person limited POV from the Gotham Writers' Workshop guide (which I'm using because I loaned my Burroway to someone and haven't gotten it back):

With the third-person point-of-view the narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator is a voice created by the author to tell the story...With this POV, the narrator has access to only one character's mind....The story is told by the narrator, from the perspective of a single participant in the action....The entire story is filtered through the POV character's consciousness.

Told by the narrator, but from the perspective and through the consciousness of the POV character. Hmmm....they give an example paragraph, from Elizabeth Tallent's "Earth to Molly":

     At the hotel, really a shabby bed-and-breakfast, the landlady, pinching her upper lip in displeasure at having to hoist herself from her chair, let Molly into her room and left her with the key. The landlady was a long time retreating down the hall. The dolor of her tread, with its brooding pauses, was not eavesdropping but arthritis. Molly was sorry for having needed her to climb the stairs, but of course the old woman complained her stiff-legged way up them all the time, showing lodgers to their rooms. Why, oh why, would anyone spend the night here? A prickly gray carpet ran tightly from wall to wall. It was the color of static, and seemed as hateful.

The GWW book points out that it's Molly wondering why anyone would spend the night here. Here's where I get a little shaky though: who is the one noting the "dolor" of her tread? Is that Molly? If so, then Molly knows some old-timey words that most people don't know. If it's the narrator, then we have the narrator's voice mixing in with Molly's observations. I'm not criticizing, I'm just pointing out that this happens, and that it isn't often made that clear when people write about how to handle POV. Does Molly merely see a carpet, and the narrative voice tells the reader that it's prickly, gray, the color of static, and hateful? Is this something Molly thinks? (If so, Molly thinks things I have never thought ever.) More likely, it's the narrative voice both translating Molly's senses to the reader and adding narrative editorial.

I was actually right about something 
 
The GWW then uses the term "distance" (which I was not sure was the right term, but it is) to explain this very thing I'm talking about: "While this narrator seems to stand just behind Molly's shoulder, or perhaps even lurk in her mind, the third-person narrator may also stand back at a little distance."

GWW even flat out tells us that 3rd person limited can be useful when you've got a character with limited intellectual powers, because the separate narrative voice can say things the character can't. So it's okay if Tallent's narrator knows the word "dolor" but Molly doesn't. Great.

So when I've wondered about other authors doing things that struck me as funny with their 3rd-person limited, it's not that the narrative voice is doing things the character couldn't. It's that 1) I'm not sure how far we can take the narrative voice's intellectually greater powers compared to the character and still feel like we're in that person's head, and 2) I think once a voice establishes its distance, it shouldn't jump around too much. Doing that is as jangling as breaking POV by suddenly giving us the thoughts of a non-POV character.

 Issue number two is easy to avoid once you've characterized the issue, which I just did (you're welcome). It's issue one that I'm grappling with as I work to figure out my own aesthetics. When I read the kind of story that makes most reviewers weak in the knees with its sinewy and stylish prose, I tend to get a little distracted, feeling that the voice is so strong it actually is another character. And where is this voice coming from? It's no longer hiding when it's that strong. It's now front and center, which means I feel like I'm now actually moving into what I would call the 3rd-person potentially omniscient. The voice doesn't know all, but it's capable of explaining anything the character happens to come across. The city dwelling character is suddenly out in the woods? No problem, the narrative voice knows the names of all the trees and shrubbery. The character is fixing a car? The narrative voice knows what every little bolt and screw is called, and is willing to look at it in a minute detail that no person I know actually looks at things with. It's like the narrative voice can direct the character's eyes and ears to do things while the character herself is off living her life doing what normal people do.

Cormac McCarthy springs to mind. I've never seen such a string of nouns of improbable specificity. It's a uniquely McCarthian thing to do, and lets you know you're reading a book he wrote, which almost makes Cormac McCarthy himself a character in his own novels.

Of course, I'm not really sure what I want as an alternative. My son recently had to read the 1972 young adult novel Watership Down--possibly the book least-deserving of its status as a classic I've ever read. In it, a warren of rabbits, when it comes across the things of men, will describe those things in extremely rabbit-centric terms. A railroad is an "iron road," for example. Any type of machine is a hrududu or something like that. (The book definitely breaks this POV trick, though, which is one of the 11,000 things wrong with it.) I wouldn't want to read endless novels where the reader is tied to the main character's ignorance.

I do know that if you spend the whole story at once distance from the character and then suddenly jump, it's going to feel off somehow. It's an amateurish thing to do as much as directly addressing the  "gentle reader" is. And I wouldn't mind seeing other narrative voices than just artistic savants possessing the sensory apparatuses of their characters. Not that I'm sure what I want instead. Maybe this is why I'm writing so much first person lately. It may not have the respect these days that 3rd limited does, but it's definitely the easiest not to screw up.

1 comment:

  1. Citizen, being doctrinaire strikes me as part of the project to reify genre, something that in practice is more or less doomed at the edges and only applicable to the mediocre middle. And "Gentle Reader" is my normal go to, by the way. As is "it was a dark and stormy night," which always means that Snoopy is the omniscient narrator.

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