I’ve been ruminating for awhile and am about ready to start a new novel. Every time between books, I panic, certain I will never have another idea and every time, something happens (or doesn’t) and it comes to me. Books arrive. I don’t know exactly how to explain it if it hasn’t happened to you. Also, I have learned not to talk about a novel ahead of time – magic in containment and all of that.
A friend asked me to write about Point Of View and since I’m trying to decide on that for this new novel, it was a serendipitous request. If you want to study in depth, pick up Points Of View by Moffett and McElheny.
Many first novels are written in first person singular. I did it with Dead Weight. In many ways, this is the easiest to work in. You include what the character sees and experiences; you leave out all the stuff your character cannot know about. You can’t get confused hopping around in different characters’ heads because you only have one to deal with. It’s one way to make a novel feel intimate – your reader gets to know the thoughts of your main character and their world view. Famous novels in first person include The White Tiger, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Room, and Lolita. Obviously, your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable – witness the loathsome Humbert Humbert – for first person to work.
An example of first person plural (we) is And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris. It’s also a very funny book. This is a great marriage of subject matter and POV. It’s a way to include the character of the office without dipping into particular people and allows for office politics and group-think to be portrayed in a way that can only be captured by the plural.
Second person: Brights Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, Jennifer Egan’s story “Out of Body” in A Visit From The Goon Squad, Paul Auster’s upcoming Winter Journal. It seems to be a love it or hate it POV. I used it in The Green Bench. Flash fiction was enough for me. I can’t really imagine keeping it up for an entire novel. I take that back – it could be incredibly effective when writing about what happens around genocide. For example, if you’re writing about WWII Germany: you sing the hymn as loudly as possible to avoid hearing the trains filled with begging screams roll by your church. That kind of thing. Tragically, there are too many instances, some going on right now, to list, but you get the idea – the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, etc. It’s a POV for a few particular effects – instructing another, a conversation with a part of yourself (Auster and his body), and of course, group-think. Because it can feel detached, it is often chilling.
There are several permutations of third person and it a great POV to use for action and/or suspense. It also allows flexibility if you want to jump into more than one character’s head. Within third person there are the sub-categories of objective, omniscient and limited. You may also find sources citing selective singular, dual, detached, etc. In my latest novel, Wrestling Alligators, I used a multiple or variable third-person POV and studied Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections specifically for that reason on the advice of my mentor, Rob Roberge (we both had our issues with the book). As I wrote in my annotation, “Franzen is a good example of shifting points of view, particularly the three siblings, and helped me establish my own narrative structure. He moves among all five family members, mostly with success.”
Some thoughts on POV from Men With Pens. In a future post, I may write about how I decide which POV to use in the next book. Stay tuned. And Aaron will be back Monday with more Vonnegut for you.