Monday, August 19, 2013

The Subtle Balance Blog Series: Part 2, Point of View... Well Some of it, At Least

Part two of the SubtleBalance Blog Series was initially meant to be a continuation of Part One and was supposed to include things that myself and others felt also belong on the list of basic elements for crafting fiction. However, when I started to write about the first element that came to mind, I quickly realized it wasn’t quite working out the way I’d planned. In fact, it has become far too long for just one post. So, the following element, Point of View, will be broken up and each POV option will have its own post.

This element is just as important as those listed in Part One in helping to create and maintain the subtle balance—you see what I did there?—required to craft a good piece of fiction. In the name of brevity (which happens to be one aspect I’ll be touching on with one of the forthcoming elements of this series), let’s cut the foreplay and get on with it, shall we?

Point of View: Point of view is basically how you choose to convey a story from the many possible sources you have at your disposal. I think of it sort of like a mode of transportation. When you decide to go to the store from your home, you have many different options as to how you can get yourself from point A (the place where you live) to point B (the store you wish to go to); you could lace up your tennis shoes and walk, you could drive your car (assuming you have one), you could ride a bike (see previous parenthetic aside), put on some rocket skates (really, who doesn’t have a pair of those!), or you could take some form of public transportation (in which I would strongly salute your bravery). When you choose the style of point of view, you’re basically picking the vehicle or mode of transportation for your story to get from point A (your crazy, awesome, creative brain) to point B (your hungry adoring reader’s brain), hopefully without over or under-shooting your destination. Or for that matter crashing right into it and killing a dozen innocent bystanders in the process. Like with modes of transportation, every type of point of view has its pros and cons.

Each of these posts will cover the basic point of view options you can choose to transport your story to the reader along with some commentary about their different good and bad points. Let’s start with…

First Person: First person point of view is essentially telling the story directly from the point of view of one of your characters as if this character is telling the reader the story. For example: “My name is Joey First-Person and this is my story.” Obviously that’s a very dumbed-down example, but I’m sure most of you get the point. Some great classic literature that uses first person point of view would be Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some recent examples from popular fiction would include Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire novels, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, or Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books. Many of James Patterson’s novels are also written in first person point of view.

Now, for anyone who still isn’t following, maybe you’ve never come across a book written in first person and therefore I’m going to guess you couldn’t possibly do much reading and should probably stop reading this post and wait for me to talk about the importance—to writers—particularly writers who want to continue to grow in their craft—of reading as much fiction as you can manage to get your greedy hands on.

One of the best things about first person point of view is the degree of intimacy it can create between the reader and the character you’re using to narrate your story. It gives you the chance to go deeper inside the mind and emotions of this character and show their more human side in both positive and negative ways that don’t quite come through as blatantly in third person or omniscient point of view. But it also constrains the writer in a way that is difficult to employ, yet can heighten the sense of tension in your fiction and become hugely rewarding to the writer who executes it well. Because the reader in a sense sees, hears, and to some degree even feels what the viewpoint character does and therefore is also subject to this character’s human sensory limitations as well. With first person point of view, unless your viewpoint character can read people’s minds or know things impossible for humans to know, the reader can only perceive, deduce, and learn from the minimal human sensory information conveyed to them by the character telling the story.

Now, does that mean the reader can only figure out what the viewpoint character can? Absolutely not. I think it’s fair to say that some, maybe even many readers often pick up on clues the viewpoint character doesn’t notice at all. But that’s true of all viewpoints to some degree. One of the most important things imperative for the writer to maintain tension is managing to keep as many secrets as possible. At least until the time comes to reveal them. In a big way, maintaining tension is a lot like playing poker against your reader and knowing when to bluff and when to play your cards.

In other words, building tension requires you to gradually reveal your secrets little by little every now and then in order to keep pulling the reader along. That, in essence, is tension. I like to think of it like the reader is the rabbit and the secrets of the story are collectively one BIG ASS CARROT™ that the writer pulls along. Every once in a while, the writer lets the rabbit catch up and get a tasty little nibble from the BIG ASS CARROT™, further compelling the rabbit (the reader) to keep pursuing the BIG ASS CARROT™ (aka keep reading the story—Oh my God, what happens next???) until the entire thing is gone right down to the very last satisfying bite.

How does using first person point of view constrain the writer in such a way that actually helps to add tension to the story, you ask? Well, how about some examples. The first thing that comes to mind for me is character motivations. This can be any character including the very character who’s telling the story. Let’s say there’s a character in the story who is always mean to everyone but at the same time is often quick to be nice to your main character—and your character doesn’t quite understand why. Because the reader only sees this other character from the viewpoint character’s point of view, the only clues they are able to pick up on come from the information provided by that character’s five senses through the filter of their own biases, motivations, and/or withheld information.

Which brings me to another aspect of first person POV to further complicate things. Nowhere in the laws of viewpoint is there a rule that says you can trust that the viewpoint character is telling you the truth! The viewpoint character in first person point of view can actually be made to lie to the reader. This is called an unreliable narrator. Any narrator can be unreliable, be they first person, second person (rare and complex as that can be), third person, or omniscient, but I personally think this technique is most effective with first person POV. Because, instead of trying to produce tension, the writer is usually using an unreliable narrator as another way to hide information or as a means to trick the reader into believing one thing in order to reveal something contrary or hidden later on. This is often used to add some kind of twist in the story usually toward the end. And, of course, the more intimate a relationship that forms between the reader and the first person viewpoint character, the less likely the reader will see it coming, the more devastating the betrayal will be, and therefore the more effective the twist will end up. I would give you an example but that would risk spoiling a good book or story and if there’s one thing I truly hate in this world, it’s spoilers!

But getting back to those other characters. The ones you can only see through your viewpoint character’s eyes. Those sneaky, tricky, hard-to-decipher, keep-to-themselves other characters—the secret keepers—the ones who know something your viewpoint character—and possibly your reader—doesn’t. The bastards! Why do they do the things they do? What do they know that Joey First-Person doesn’t? What are they hiding, damn them! [DEEP BREATH] Alluding to ambiguous motivations, loyalties, and/or acquired information from your non-viewpoint characters is a great way to not only heighten the tension in any story, but to also add realism that readers will appreciate.

A great example of this is the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series (which might I add is written in mostly third person limited point of view which we’ll come to in a later post). Throughout the story, tension is built based on the fact that Harry never quite knows whether he should trust Snape. And this actually grows—rather brilliantly—into a major plot point of the series in the last two books.

But character ambiguity doesn’t always have to be a major plot point. It can be used to varying degrees in all kinds of different ways to add tension or even more simply and sometimes far more importantly make the writer have to get off his big fat butt and show the reader what that character is thinking and feeling via simple cues of human body language or telling slips in dialogue, or all kinds of subtle ways in which we all—as human beings—can recognize… if we’re paying attention. And if our reader isn’t bored, they’re likely doing just that.

At the same time a lot of this character ambiguity can also be accomplished by using a third person limited point of view, the most popular viewpoint in modern fiction. But we’ll go more into that when we get to that post. One of the downsides to first person is that not everyone likes it. I’ve seen review after review where readers have complained about books being written in first person. I suppose the reason for this is that some people prefer a more formal detached narrator. Personally, as a reader, I myself don’t care what viewpoint you use, so long as you use it well and it fits the story. But who cares what I think? Readers have their own opinion and they don’t likely give a damn what anyone else’s is when they’re flipping through the pages of a novel or short story, etc.

One last thing about first person viewpoint that makes it a tricky point of view to work with. You always have to write your prose in character—at all times (unless of course you make use of multiple points of view—and now I’ve just gone and made this confusing, haven’t I? Oh, well, sorry! We’ll talk about that one soon enough). Take the classic example I used earlier Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Keyes not only stays in character quite brilliantly via prose, spelling, and grammatical nuances completely believable to his viewpoint character, but he even goes as far as to use this technique to show the incredible changes that Charlie Gordon (Daniel’s protagonist and viewpoint character in the book) goes through from the beginning of this brilliant little emotional science fiction book to its resonant, tear-jerking, hugely impactful ending (see The Subtle Balance Part 1 for more on endings).

Speaking of endings…

That pretty much wraps it up for this first post on point of view. Stay tuned for my continuing posts on point of view in the Subtle Balance series: The Subtle Balance Part 3: Point of View Continued in which I’ll be writing about second person point of view, Part 4: More Point of View in which we’ll cover both third person and omniscient points of view and Part 5: Yes, We’re Still Talking about Point of View in which I’ll discuss how tense comes into play in all the various points of view and some other final thoughts on the subject. Coming soon…