Warning: this is going to be nuts-and-bolts technical, and probably only of interest to writers. And maybe not even them. (Spoilers: Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice.)
I promised that we’d talk about point of view in literature, film, and television. That covers a lot of ground; so before we parasail off into the stars, we’re going to have to walk over the foundations together and make sure we’re all speaking the same language. Let’s start with the basics, and that means literature. The word.
Years ago, in one of the first writing classes I ever took, I handed in a short story about a young woman who was one of the only survivors of a car crash that took out the other people she’d been living with. It was a problematic story, because to really get the sense of what had happened, you needed to know something about those other people and what they meant to her — and yet, it was just a short story, without really time to deliver seven character sketches of people who were dead. I gave it my best shot, but I was most worried about the lack of time I spent on the narrator herself — I told the reader nothing about her.
“Oh, no,” said the instructor, when I expressed my worry during class discussion; “we get her perfectly.” And the other students nodded. He saw my wariness and explained, “In first person, the prose becomes the character.” In other words, nobody needed to know where she went to school or whether she liked vanilla pudding; you were already intimately inside her head, knowing her by every reaction she had to what was happening.
A few years later I was on a panel of young writers at a science fiction convention, where the topic was first vs. third person. I spoke last, which meant I got to hear what everybody else on the panel had to say before my turn came. I said, “Okay, I’m going to be the odd man out here, because what I’ve prepared is pretty much the opposite of everything you’ve heard.” They’d all gone on about how difficult first person was — what a strain it was to use, how complicated it made telling a story. I’d recently published my first book — essentially, the first-person story of an English major who’s stranded and can’t find a job. On another planet.
First person had been as simple as falling off a log. And the grounding it gave the story had, to some degree, kept me honest; I wasn’t tempted to suddenly have my character pick up a gun and rob a convenient bank. She had to be a real person, and her thoughts had to reflect that — we were right in there among them, and no hocus-pocus tricks would serve. (I was delighted to read recently that Joss Whedon spoke of liking to put real people in larger-than-life situations; as a writer, that’s pretty much the street where I live. If I’d had my way, young Clark Kent would’ve been more vulnerable to the powers of Krypto-mutants, too. My characters never have easy lives.)
Of course, there was good reason for the other panelists to call first person “difficult” — they were telling a different sort of story from mine. If you want to lay out a tale of galactic sprawl — or of the American Civil War — or of the complex political situations that drive an 800-page fantasy novel — it’s damned hard to confine yourself to the pov of one character. Because that character would have to be everywhere. (The recent HBO series Rome had the charming conceit of placing their viewpoint characters, Vorenus and Pullo, on the scene of nearly every major happening during the fall of the Republic. But even they couldn’t be at every dinner table and in every bedroom.)
Third person is far more conducive to worldbuilding, especially if your aim is to tell a story about something (as opposed to someone). Third-person worldbuilding is complicated, composed of many colored threads; first person, on the other hand, is easy — just follow the main character. But then the story is about that character.
(There are exceptions to the generalizations I’m making here. I don’t think, for instance, that Nick Carraway is really who The Great Gatsby is about. But if we become distracted by every intriguing door we pass, we’ll never get out of this essay.)
So. “The prose becomes the character.” Which means it can’t be just any old prose; it has to be the narrator, whoever they are, and however far removed they might be from the author. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain wrote one of the famous opening lines in American literature. Having heard it praised, I finally found a copy of the book and was shocked at how simple it was:
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
Simple — but already you’re inside this man’s life, and there’s a nicely disturbing aspect to living in a person who’s going to commit murder. Cain said of his writing:
“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.” He deplored the fact he could not seem to write well in third-person; he said, “to write anything, I have to pretend to be somebody else.”
First person is, thus, the ultimate mask — but it’s a mask that doesn’t allow for a lot of cheating. If you’re not utterly honest to who that person is, those thoughts will ring false, and nothing is more fatal. (Third-person limited is slightly easier to cheat in that respect, and third-person omniscient easier still. Visual media like TV and film are the easiest of all. But we’ll work up to that.)
Of course, all this talk of honesty doesn’t mean the narrator might not be fooling himself. The unreliable narrator is one of the charms and risks of first-person. (I am firmly convinced that House, for example, if he were writing his own story, would be one of the most unreliable narrators in the history of the planet. Which is ironic from someone who values realism as much as he does.) The risk to the author is that some readers may not pick up that the protagonist’s view of his reality is inaccurate, or to what degree he’s fooling himself — and whether, on some level, he knows it and is avoiding opening that closet door. There are plenty of enchanting ripples to get lost in when you play the unreliable-narrator game. As a reader, it’s a lovely jolt when you understand the truth, because it’s perfect double vision; you are the character, participating with him or her in every thought, but a part of you can still stand aside and see the distortions even while you feel where they come from. Most fiction offers that kind of charge, but a good first-person narration can deliver it in spades.
That, mind you, is true unreliability. There’s another sort, where the first-person character simply doesn’t share all their thoughts with the reader. Agatha Christie did this in her classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and to this day people get upset about it. (The book’s narrated by someone who seems to be acting as a kind of Watson to a retired Hercule Poirot, but in the end we learn he committed the murder and simply didn’t choose to tell us this earlier. I don’t think she ever wrote a book that came under more criticism from readers who felt cheated.)
Mary Renault is a great wielder of first person; her books about ancient Greece drop you right into the heads of the people living then — their view of beauty, their view of honor. Where a young man can say, “Father, do you think I would be so base as to forgive my enemies?” (As we skip gaily over two thousand years of Christian thought.) She’s so good at this that once, when I opened a book of hers that I hadn’t read in years, I was surprised to realize it was not in first person. I’d simply remembered it that way because it threw you so deeply into the mind of the protagonist.
Which brings us to the toy I’ve been using most over the past few years: limited third.
Harry hated mornings. And of all the mornings he hated, the ones where Janet tried to be understanding were the worst.
“Late night?” she asked, sympathetically, as she opened the blinds. Dear god. He buried his head under the pillow and controlled the urge to throttle her.
I know nothing of Harry — I just made him up — but I believe he’s being forced, through some sort of situation at work, to spend time with a boss who’s a heavy social drinker and has a much better head for it than Harry does. I can’t guarantee this, though. We’d have to read further to find out. Note, however, that we’re right there in his head, listening to Janet through his unhappy ears, feeling his outrage over the sudden light through the blinds. We were tossed smack into the middle of his life much the way Cain tosses us into the head of his narrator in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
But, wait a minute, you say. That was first person. You went on and on about how unique it was. Now we’re in third person, and it’s just the same?
Third person is a vast wonderland, and many are its sliding boards and merry-go-rounds. This is but one end of the spectrum: limited third. At the other end lies the foreign country of omniscient third. And in between there’s every color of pastel chalk you could ever want to pull out of the box and draw a picture with.
Limited third is, in fact, damned close to first person. Like first person, you still write as the character would write — even in the narration. Notice the “dear god” up there — if this were about a character who had concerns about taking the Lord’s name in vain, those words wouldn’t be there. What’s more, Harry would understand each and every word used in the story; the metaphors are those he would choose, and not those you would necessarily use. “But my character’s not narrating,” you think; “I, the author, am doing that. He’s just speaking the dialogue — I’m the one telling you his thoughts. Why can’t I use my own words?”
Because you’re using your writer’s license to plunge us so deep in the protagonist’s head, your words would be a distraction. We don’t even want you to be here, in limited third. You don’t exist. The character in the story is real; you are not. We do not wish to look in your direction. In limited third, we’re pretending the book wrote itself.
Limited third has a sharp and addictive immediacy; you’re in the moment, feeling the character’s thoughts and perceptions as they come, with no knowledge beyond. Some writing lends itself to this more than others; sex scenes, for instance, go like gangbusters in limited third, all drums and wild horns and rock and roll. On the other hand, should you ever wish to write a stately, elegant sex scene, with the manners of a well-spoken Georgian lady, may I recommend omniscient third, in which you would not dream of violating the privacy of your characters by stuffing the reader deeply into their heads.
Stephen King writes a hypnotically strong limited third, and it lends his stories a believability that sometimes evaporates when they’re transferred to film. I can believe in his monsters because the characters are responding to them, thought by thought, in a believable way; on-screen, though, we’re reduced to witnessing the facts, without the corroboration of character. It takes a leap from a great director to supply that lack and ground you in a reality so strong it can support the weight of the monstrous.
“So when should I choose a deep, limited third-person viewpoint, and when first person? They seem so similar.” Writers are all different; for a lot of us, which person a story should be in will be declared to us by the story itself. The words will come one day, as you’re sitting on the subway, and they’ll present themselves in one suit of clothes or another. But then, it also depends on the structure of the story you want to tell. It’ll be a lot easier to get into that sweep of empire, or even the story of four friends over ten years, if you can move from person to person in third instead of being confined to one viewpoint in first. (Yes, you could also move from person to person using first; I’ve read and enjoyed such books. But there’s often a slight flavor to them of an author performing a stunt.)
“Okay,” you say, “then what’s the point of this omniscient third? You’re saying deep limited third is more emotionally intense and immediate. And isn’t that what I want, in writing something? To engage the reader’s emotions?”
Readers may be engaged on many levels.
(to be continued)