I’ve been pondering POV.
Reading a colleague’s novel, I found the writing beautiful, the characters believable and the plot layered and complex. The descriptive prose was often breathtaking. But something was wrong. I read about a third and put it to one side. Despite thinking about the environment and political background, pondering the nature of compromise and ethics (this novel tackles big themes), I wasn’t eager to pick it up again. I had a long hard think about why not. It came down to identification.
Not identification in terms of ‘why aren’t there any characters like me?’. (Let’s face it, the literary world is awash with wine-swilling, pug-loving, opinionated fire-eaters.) The issue here is that I have no investment in any of the characters’ desires and therefore, the narrative pull of the piece (will s/he get what s/he wants?) is missing. The crux of the issue is POV. Point of View.
Jane Smiley on The Art of the Novel: ‘Point of view is like perspective in a realistic painting – it changes the size and shape, the nature and identity, of characters, objects and events in accordance with their proximity to the viewer … an audience member needs to be told whom to attend to and empathise with.’
David Lodge on Point of View: ‘Totally objective, totally impartial narration may be a worthy aim in journalism or historiography, but a fictional story is unlikely to engage our interest unless we know whose story it is.’ (Thanks to Clair for this reminder from The Art of Fiction.)
Dwight V. Swain on introducing characters: ‘The reader wants to know three things: Where am I? What’s up? Whose skin am I in?’
I asked a few writer friends how they felt about POV.
‘When I first started writing, my husband would tell me I wasn’t seeing anything from my character’s perspective. He mimed putting a camera on his forehead. I needed to tell my story as if I was seeing it through the same camera my characters looked through. It did help me to ‘get’ something I really didn’t grasp before then. I suspect these concepts are harder for people – like me – who never studied English Lit at university level or did creative writing MAs. As writers, we learn but sometimes forget how little we knew when we were starting out and how hard those concepts can be at first.’ – Sheila Bugler
Tricia Gilbey recommended Philip Pullman’s The Pearce Lecture, and I’m very glad she did. Articulate opinion and cogent references all delivered with wit and humour.
Personally, I look at POV from my own set of cultural filters. I grew up in Wales, so I’m quick to laugh, sing, fight, cry, form allegiancies and defend loyalties. My first question as a reader will always be:
Whose side am I on?
The writer’s job is to tell me.