The Human Condition:

Writing for Point of View – April 22, 2012

The canon of what constitutes good writing changes over time. What might have been considered good technique for an Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway might not survive in today’s marketplace. Part of the evolution—familiar to any teacher of high-school English—derives from changes in popular vocabulary, word meanings, social infrastructure, and the dominant mores, aside from any obvious differences in scientific knowledge and available technology.1 But part also derives from simply how a story might be told, and here the biggest change seems to be in handling character point of view.

Early storytelling—at least in the European tradition—was shaped by wandering poets like Homer, the bards of Celtic myth and religion, and the creators of the Scandinavian sagas. Reflecting the single voice of the poet, who pretended to be recounting what he had seen or heard, or knew through his culture’s myth-memory, these stories took the point of view of an omniscient narrator who effectively sat in the sky above the story’s action and observed the characters as distant figures.

When storytelling moved into the Greek theater in the fifth century BC, the nature of the stage reinforced this omniscient viewpoint. The audience sat apart, watching an open floor surrounded by the proscenium—or “front of the building”—where the actors moved and talked. In Greek theater, the chorus—composed of everyman figures such as the Theban elders in Antigone or female captives in The Trojan Women—spoke as a group to guide the play. They would set the place and time, offer background information, react to the play’s action as a form of social conscience, and interpret the main actor’s thoughts, hopes, and fears, which might seem inappropriate coming directly from the character’s mouth.2

From the omniscient viewpoint, the story’s recipient—the listener, audience, or reader—might then choose to follow more closely the one or two characters or actors who are prominent in the story, whose decisions and actions appear to be moving it along, and who become the focus of what happens. The reader will likely identify thoughts, emotions, and actions from his or her own experience that parallel what the main characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. But this identification is the reader’s or audience’s own choice to make. Nothing forces the person receiving the story to side with one character or another except the skill of the author in manipulating the overall situation. In an inept story or play, the audience might decide it likes the villain, or the butler, better than the hero or heroine.

An author working from the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator has the freedom to tell the story in any way he finds convenient. He can introduce background material with whole paragraphs of simple prose. He can devote large amounts of the story to “telling” about the character’s history, personality, and motives rather than “showing” these elements through choice and action. He can play out a dialogue through the statement and response, action and reaction, canto and respondu of two characters simultaneously. Thus, Alphonse states what he knows to be a lie but presents as the truth in one line, and Beatrice pretends to accept the truth but suspects it might be a lie in the next line. Alphonse smiles and Beatrice sees the grin of deceit, then Beatrice nods and Alphonse is satisfied his lie has worked. Everything happens at once, as on a stage. The author flits from one character’s head to the other, like a parakeet perching briefly on each shoulder.3

That sort of omniscient storytelling will still work today, but it annoys some readers. They have become accustomed to working the story more deeply, from within the head and behind the eyes of one character or another, adopting a single point of view almost completely. This sense of identification, I believe, arose most strongly in the twentieth century, with developing techniques in cinematography.

Early motion pictures were like filmed plays. The camera sat outside the proscenium arch and “watched” the action on the sound stage—as a human audience does. Then directors began varying the shots and camera angles, sometimes in full frame and sometimes in closeup, sometimes from slightly above or below the actors. In the earliest and simplest form of camerawork, a closeup shows the audience one character’s face from the viewpoint of another.

With time, the camera’s “eye” has become the moving viewpoint of the audience, and often it follows the situation and view of the main character. If the actor stands on the edge of a cliff, the camera does not simply stand beside him or watch him from behind. It takes his place entirely and looks down over the edge—then it draws back in reaction to what the character is supposed to have seen.4 If the character has crashed a car and hangs upside down in the seat belt, the camera looks out from a low angle through the broken windshield to the upside-down activity of the world outside. The camera may still show a split-second overall shot of the actor on the cliff or the car lying on its roof, but these only establish the story line. More and more, our eyes are the camera, and they travel with the character’s viewpoint.

In my own fiction writing, I have tried to adopt this limited point of view exclusively.5 My style might best be described as “first person told in third person” rather than as third-person narrative. That is, to the best of my ability, there is no “omniscient narrator.” What the reader sees, hears, experiences, and knows about is from the viewpoint and through the eyes and other senses of the character we ride in with. If I go to a second character, it’s always in the context of a new scene or chapter. (Only once, in The Mask of Loki with Roger Zelazny, did I change viewpoints during a single scene. And then the reader’s perspective traveled on the tip of a knife, from a person who is dying to the person who assassinated him.)

In this style, a point-of-view (POV) character might suppose or guess what another is thinking or intending, but such suppositions and guesses must be clearly shown as such. The POV character might recall details from earlier action, or offer as reflection things the reader needs to know about the setting and past relationships, but only if he or she experienced or heard about them firsthand. The POV character can’t know about the gun in someone else’s pocket without first seeing a bulge in the cloth, or know someone is standing behind the door without hearing a scuffle or a whisper. I would never use a construction like “What Max did not know is that Caroline had already returned home” or “Fred would never guess that, while he was talking to Max, Caroline was listening on the other side of the door.” If the POV character cannot know it, it does not happen or become reader knowledge in that scene.

This is a hard way to write, a self-imposed straitjacket. But it’s also, for me, a compass needle that always points north. I have to plan my stories to accommodate point of view, sometimes taking the action apart in order to put it in several different but contemporaneous scenes. I have to constantly question the details I reveal to make sure they don’t violate character knowledge.

But there are advantages to accepting this restriction on my work. I love to create multi-character books, where the reader may know and understand things—because he or she has been “inside” several different heads at different times—that are hidden from any one character. This leverage gives me a built-in pattern for weaving webs and creating surprise. Limited character knowledge was a key element in the plot of The Judge’s Daughter and played well between the two first-person narrators in First Citizen. Such rules, like the lines of perspective in a painting, limit your art but also give it strength.

Any book with multiple viewpoint characters, I believe, really benefits from strong viewpoint control. If a writer is new to the technique, the simplest way to achieve it is to start with the narrative in first person: “I came … I found … I learned …” Getting everything right in first person will naturally show up any errors that might get by the writer if the passage was originally in third person and covered things the viewpoint character doesn’t, can’t, or wouldn’t know about or experience. This technique also places the writer firmly inside the head and viewpoint of the character, making it easy to identify the necessary feelings, reactions, and conclusions that would be natural to the person doing the experiencing. Once the story is fixed correctly in first-person, the writer simply changes all the “I’s” to the name of the character or to the appropriate “he” or “she,” turning first-person narrative to third person but from the first-person point of view.

For me, this technique makes the reader’s experience richer, more personally involving, and more of a “show” than a “tell.”

1. Consider how the plot of Romeo and Juliet might have changed—with the tragic end disappearing entirely—in the age of cell phones. For that matter, consider how the remake of the movie classic Dial M for Murder did have to change in a world full of cell phones.

2. Shakespeare handled this problem with the “aside”: the player speaking directly to the audience behind the back of his hand.

3. The exception to this, of course, is those stories told in first person. There the narrator simply cannot flit from viewpoint to viewpoint without circuitous constructions like “I could tell that Beatrice didn’t believe me by the way she narrowed her eyes.” But the first-person narrator never actually gets inside Beatrice’s head to learn or confirm what she actually believes. First-person storytelling goes back at least as far as Dickens and David Copperfield in the nineteenth century. In fact, the first of the modern English novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, published in the eighteenth century, was told through a series of letters, which are by nature in the first person.

4. Think of Jimmy Stewart reacting to the height of the bell tower in Vertigo.

5. From this point on, the discussion derives from my email exchange on writing with Kate Campbell, author of the forthcoming novel Adrift in the Sound. Our correspondence while editing her book is captured in Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange About Writing, Editing, and Publishing.