Angle of Vision

A writer has much in common with a photographer composing a picture and focusing the camera’s lens on the principal subject.  A picture can be taken from many possible angles, but from whatever angle the shot is snapped, the perspective belongs to the photographer.  The finished photo embodies his vision. Composition is the essence of both art forms.  Placement of the focus, to zoom in or to zoom out are decisions both the photographer and the writer make.  The close-up shot for a writer translates into the decision to develop an intense dramatized scene replete with dialogue rather than to zoom out with a passage of narrative to cover the event.

Likewise, it seems to me that the single most important decision the writer makes is what viewpoint or viewpoints (recognizing he can choose to tell his story from more than person’s perspective) to tell the story. The first person viewpoint–the “I” of any story–creates intensity and psychological depth of the character-narrator who relates his own story. This is a quick, obvious way to achieve emotional intensity and reader identification with the main character. Many memorable novels have used this technique. Salman Rushdie does a superb job with the first person narrator Saleem Sinai in his novel Midnight’s Children. Other novelists have chosen to shift the first person viewpoint, dedicating sections of the story to one character or another.  In the same way, they can shift the third person subjective point of view in different parts of their novel.

I favor the third person subjective in my novels because it facilitates interior monologue. I can delve into the thoughts and feelings of a character with abandon. Although I have used first person in the short story, so far I have not chosen the first person point of view in a novel.  In contrast, third person objective, tells the story from one point of view but does not get into the head of the character. More often than not, the contemporary novelist uses one or more third person points of view, demarcating the change in point of view from one character to another by a break or chapter division.  The omniscient narrator found favor in sprawling nineteenth century novels in which the writer revealed the thoughts of many characters and also loved to intrude his authorial views.

In the choice of point of view the writer answers the question whose story is it.  Writing the story from another character’s point of view creates an entirely different novel, clearly evident by the trend nowadays to take a succesful novel and rewrite it from another character’s point of view.  Two such attempts that come to mind are Rhett’s People by Donald McCaig, a variation on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, a variation on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Can you think of other contemporary novels that revisit another novel with a different point of view?

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Good topic to delve into, Olivia.

    I prefer third person for the same reasons you mentioned: I can explore my characters psyches as much or as little as the narrative demands; in first person you are confined to the protagonists voice and opinions, it is hard to see the forest for the trees.

    My problem with first person is a purely personal one and one that inhibited my writing when I first started. It is a gender specific as well. At the time, I couldn’t voice a believable female character in my writing. Too often, these ladies would come across as drab, two dimensional and, I feared, caricatured women in general. On the other hand, writing male characters in first person usually ended up sounding (uncomfortably) like myself, or variations of myself as I saw them.

    Thankfully I’ve overcome these to a large extent.

    Reply

    • I agree that writing a believable character of the opposite sex is a major hurdle in a writer’s development. I admire male authors who choose women as their main character and do a convincing job in their portrayal. When I noticed that too many of my main characters were women, I wanted to try instead to write a novel where a man provided the main point of view. I did this to a certain extend in The Pluperfect Phantom, but in my last book Delayed Reaction I wanted to write chiefly from the point of view of a strong male character. The men in my writing critique groups were helpful in pointing out how to get the dialogue and interior monologue of my male characters ring true. Part of the imaginative process is to get into and walk in the shoes of people of different races, ages, backgrounds and eras as well as into a different gender. Jeffery Eugenides in his Middlesex(a first person narrator) does wonderful things with both gender identifications in creation of Calliope/Cal, the hermaphroditic main character. I also like what Allan Gurganus did in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, narrated by 95-year old Lucy Marsden.

      Reply

  2. Great topic Olivia. I’m glad you brought up the concept of POV in photography. It’s helpful to think about this as component of multiple media. I often wonder what writing in the second person would be like. It would probably sound like a hypnotist speaking to her patient. Lars Vin Trier uses this voice in his early film Zentropa. It works well to eerie effect.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Alice on July 18, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Wow! You just taught me more about POV in one essay than I ever learned in an entire MFA degree!

    Reply

    • Oh, really? I doubt it, but as you brought up an MFA degree, it reminded me of the The Paris Review interview with Ray Bradbury I just read yesterday in which he dismisses degree programs in writing. He recommends the public library as the place to learn how to write. He says that is where he received his education, a no-cost one at that. He never attended college. It seems to me I read somewhere that there are about 700 creative writing degree programs in the USA today. In any case, there are beaucoup. Do the college programs mainly churn out more teachers of writing than published authors whose sole income is from writing? From your experience, what is the up side and the down side of pursuing a formal program in writing? Even if the pay-off is not publication, is the personal enrichment worth the effort and expense?

      Reply

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