Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thoughts on The Craft Expanded Redux -- cannegardner

The Vitruvian Narrator?

"Sometimes in conversation the sound of our own voice distracts us and misleads us into making assertions that in no way express our true opinions." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

This week I wanted to talk about narrative modes and narrative techniques, particularly Point of View.

When you look closely at DaVinci’s Vitruvian man, we can see that it is the image of one man and many different and alternative views of that same man. In narrative fiction, a story is often comprised of many different views, or rather, what I like to call angles of vision, if you will. Within those various angles of vision lies the interpretation of your story. Ever ask a couple of friends to retell an event they all witnessed? You’d be surprised how different the story is each time. Simply defined, this as what we call point of view -- person, technique, and perception – and the combination you choose to you will dramatically affect your so story, so choose wisely, you have a lot of options. Your story can be interpreted through the eyes of just one character or many, and in some cases, the interpretive narrator might not even be a character in the story at all – doesn’t have to be.

I have heard many a rotten dictate when it comes to handling POV, specifically who should and should not narrate a story and what they can and cannot do within that narrative mode. I hope that my essay today might dispel some of those outdated myths.

First off, literary point of view is comprised of three aspects:
  1. The Narrative POV: First Person, Second Person, or Third Person.
  2. The Narrative Technique or Voice: objective, subjective, stream of consciousness, dramatic, direct/indirect internal monologue, and omniscience, whether it be limited or not, etc., and
  3. Perception: The person(s) whose perspective is being captured within the narration and whether or not the person(s) is/are actually a character in the story.
These three elements can be used in a dizzying array of combinations, and each has its benefits and pitfalls, but there are no rules. I write Novellas. By their very nature, they tend to be intense character studies with the main character’s viewpoint, opinions, and personal philosophies being the underlying thrust of the story, so I tend to favor the more intimate narratives styles: doesn’t matter if it’s First or Third person as long as the technique and perspective is subjective and limited. For my flash fiction, I tend to use either First or Second person. I like the Second Person POV for Flash fiction because it adds a layer of creepiness I can’t necessarily get with First or Third.

By default, many First Person narratives are limited and subjective, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, who is usually the main character in the story. In this sort of narrative, the other characters are actualized mostly through dramatic scenes and dialog. As a reader, I personally like the intimacy of a First person narrative, but it too has its pitfalls. Technique, in this case, makes all the difference between a reflective, self-aware character and a whinny or self-obsessed one. Therefore, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, just depends on your intent.

One hears all the time that FP narrators cannot know the thoughts and feelings of the other characters in the story, but that again is one of those rotten dictates, especially if the storytelling style uses the past tense and a reflective First Person voice. The story has already happened and the narrator, or the main character, is reliving the story and already knows its truths with respect to the other characters and events. Even in a present tense story, the FP narrator can make known the feelings of another character because humans are notoriously guilty of making assumptions, and in that case, the narrator would be an unreliable one, but still within the boundaries, nonetheless. FP narrators often interject their own diatribe into the narration, which would make them subjective, but they don’t always have to, making them objective. Third person narrators work well for epic works with lots of characters, as the narrator can be removed from the story and offer the objective, all knowing and all seeing view, or they can be an actual character within the story, offering their limited view as well as their subjective take on everything and everyone else.

We are also not restricted to one consistent point of view, as long as your transitions are deliberate or so subtle that the reader does not get confused. For example: Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a multiple First Person subjective narration, using letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, ship logs, etc. to allow each character to reflect on how the story affected them personally in their own language and their own emotive sense of style. The letters, journal entries, and articles are the demarcation lines to keep the narrative from getting confusing. In addition, nowhere do we have Dracula represented except through the eyes of the narrators. His entire character is nothing more than an idea presented through the eyes of all the other characters, each with their own interpretation of him. In Ellis’ American Psycho, we have again another brilliant First Person subjective narration, and for a brief moment in one chapter, the narrator/main character shifts to an out of body third person limited point of view, which added even more suspense and psychological creepiness to the story.

Third person narratives are oftentimes the all knowing, all seeing, objective translator of the story, but, they are also allowed to be subjective, interjecting their own viewpoint. If you should choose to go that route, you just need to make sure your narrator has his or her own distinct voice so that he or she does not become confused with the other characters in the story, that is, of course, providing that your third person narrator isn’t one of the characters.

In reality, point of view, and all the various techniques used in combination with it, is all about manipulating distance to create emotional effect and varying levels of intimacy. You have all of them at your disposal, in any combination that works well for your story. Use it all, but watch for the pitfalls. If you end up with pages and pages of italics indicating internal monologue, then maybe you need to reconsider mode and technique. If your narrative seems too detached or too personal, or if your narrator and characters all start sounding the same, then again, it’s time to rethink your POV.

In one of my novellas, The Splendor of Antiquity, my narrator is dead. He is relaying the volatile love story between the archaeologist who dug him up and her rebuffed lover. Most of the narrative is in Third Person omniscient, but, he shifts often to his own first person subjective voice, interjecting his own take on the events unfolding in the story, whether the events are related to him or not. So in essence, he may be all knowing and all seeing, but he is an affected narrator, a flawed human spirit; we can share intimate knowledge with him even though we know that his view is often not reliable.

Second Person is a bit trickier, and I reserve that narrative voice for my flash fiction. In this case, the use of the personal pronoun “You” brings the reader into the story as an actual character. Depending on the context, this can have positive and negative effects. The aim of a second person narration is to create an intense sense of intimacy and can often leave the reader feeling powerless. For deep psychological impact, it is also used to place the reader in unfamiliar and disturbing situations in order to subliminally explore the demarcation line between the internal “You” and “I.” However, some readers may find it too uncomfortable to read from this POV without feeling alienated from their own consciously identified sense of self, so be careful with it.

Art is all about experimentation. I’ve written entire stories in one POV only to realize during revision that I had chosen, not necessarily the wrong POV, but a POV that didn’t necessarily deliver the emotional impact I wanted for the story. I will then rewrite the first 4 or 5 chapters in a different POV and let my beta readers have a go at it to see which one the majority prefers. I never ask which one they like, I simply ask them how each POV made them feel. With that, I can determine which POV works best for what I am trying to say with the story. You just never know what will happen, how the entire tone of a story can change, and that’s half the fun of it.

No comments: