I wonder if we’re not suffering from some confusion over the notions of “Point-of-view” and “Narrative voice.” Here’s what I think, please disagree vociferously (with appropriate support and logic, of course). Note that the stuff below isn’t quoted from anywhere, though it no doubt resembles stuff other people have said and written about the topic since I started paying attention to it some time around 1962. If I made any of it up, well, good for me.

“Narrative voice,” describes and categorizes the nature of the manner in which the story (the literal words of the story) is conveyed to the reader. If the narrative voice is that of a character (however minor, or major) then it’s a “First person” narrative, in which “I” (in narrative text as opposed to in dialog) is a perfectly acceptable attribution, and “I think” or “I saw” or “he said to me” can all be elements of the action of the story. The limitation of this of course is that the narrator cannot know anything about anything that doesn’t either take place within his or her field of vision, or that isn’t related to him or her somehow (which of course undermines reliability).

Then there are the “Third Person” POVs, which apparently fall into “Objective” and “Subjective” and “Omniscient” categories. When I was growing up there was only “Omniscient” so we’ve progressed in 50 years, apparently.

Third Person Objective is the supposedly “uninvolved” Narrative Voice (NV hereafter) which isn’t supposed to interact independently with the reader (an impossibility, IMO, and not even desirable), but to render “the facts, ma’am.”

In “Subjective” the NV adopts the perspective of a character, and often has particular insight into the interior working of one character’s mind, and follows that character’s actions and internal monolog; sees the action as if that character. Essentially “first person” but without the “I” part. When this happens, we call it the POV, and here’s where confusion arises, IMO.

The NV can be “third person” and adopt a character’s POV in order portray how the action looks to that character, and to reveal what’s happening in that character’s mind. It does NOT (again, IMO) mean that the NV is literally locked inside that character’s head and limited to what that character could see or hear. It’s still “outside” any of the characters and still – to a large extent – “omniscient” in the sense that the NV can know things that the character doesn’t. In other words POV is merely a convenience for the author, a way to “put the reader in the character’s head” without the NV actually becoming the character.

Therefore, “third person subjective” is a tactic, a sub category of “third person omniscient” which is really the “third person” narrative voice. If the third person telling the story is not omniscient, and is limited to one character’s knowledge and insight, then why not make it (the NV) the voice of a character?

So in “third person whatever” can the POV shift? Sure – it can and does, often. The problem, however, is when the readers have been following one character’s POV for four, five, six chapters, then all of a sudden seem to be inside the head of an entirely different character, there’s bound to be some confusion. Most successful “multi-POV” narratives tend to shift frequently (or only once or twice, and “forever” once the shift is made), which puts the burden on the writer to make very clear whose head the NV is inhabiting after the shift occurs. But there’s no “rule” (more on rules below) that says you can only tell a story from one POV. There’d be no point in third person narrative if that were the case.

Third person omniscient is exactly what it implies – the NV knows all. All about what all the characters are thinking, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, what’s happened in the past, what’s happening ob scena in the present and what will happen in the future (even if the author has only an inkling of where the story’s going). Third person omniscient narrator can see in the dark, and can tell when someone’s lying and knows that there’s a dead body on the floor of the living room of apartment 4B of that lovely old Art Deco apartment building it’s just been describing to you even before the detective breaks down the door in scene 6.

Can the NV have a POV? Sure, why not? It’s been done for years (millennia perhaps). I can’t cite chapter & verse but I’ll bet a lot that Homer and Virgil made authorial comments in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. What about all the reams of “Dear Reader” fiction in the 18th through mid-20th century English language fiction? The authorial wink & nod is a time-honored tradition. The modernists tried to talk us out of it back in the early years of the 20th century, but Dreiser and Hemingway and Woolf and their ilk notwithstanding, there’s a place in fiction for the author’s voice (if not even the author, though then we’re getting a tad bit too heavily into the post-modern/metafictional realm, and I’m not comfortable there, but if anyone else is, they’re welcome to it.) “So it goes…” – who do you suppose was saying “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse-Five? Billy Pilgrim? Montana Wildhack? Or Kurt Vonnegut Jr.? so as we learn from the masters, we learn that it’s acceptable for the authorial voice to play a role in the Narrative. As if there were any question. (let the Yahbuts begin)

Logic and its role (or not)

“It isn’t logical that he would do that.”

“There’s no logical coherence.”

Maybe so. So? I don’t understand why fiction should be held to a higher standard of logicality than Real Life. People don’t behave rationally and things don’t always adhere to logic. To make fiction do so more often than real life would make it less realistic.

Caveat here if course being that anything to do with “real-world” science  pretty much needs to adhere to current knowledge and convention.

However – it’s not realistic to begin with, and isn’t intended to be, any more than Prufrock was intended to be Prince Hamlet. Speaking only for my own fiction, it is never my intention to fool the reader into thinking that the people and events on the page might have actually inhabited the same world as the reader (and the author) inhabit. Not at all. They inhabit the world where Jeeves and Wooster and Holmes and Watson, and Groucho, Chico and Harpo live. It isn’t even a matter of “suspension of disbelief.” That phrase was coined by Dr. Johnson in reference to a very specific activity required by the audience in a theater to accept that the actors on the stage were in a ship on the channel when they were clearly on a stage in Southwark.

The activity needed for fiction is deeper and at the same time more trivial than that. It’s not one of “not disbelieving” it’s one of accepting the fiction for what it is. It’s sort of like the way Japanese kids accept Godzilla as a monster even though they KNOW it’s a guy in a rubber monster suit. (And in the movies from the 40s we knew it was Lon Chaney Jr. in makeup, not The Wolf Man, and yet – it WAS the Wolf Man and we were scared – I was anyway.) In puppet shows, we don’t require that the puppeteers convince us that the figures are real people.

“Suspension of disbelief” implies a negative. There’s something that prevents us from engaging with the fiction before us – the narrative – that we have to dismantle before we can get into the story. I don’t know why it should be that way, and I don’t think it is for everyone. “Why would Sammy go into the tunnel with Keyton?” Simple – to serve the story. And I don’t mean that glibly. Sammy is engaged in the story of Bootsie & Mac’s deaths, and with the story of the stones, and with the story of the chant in the airshaft. To satisfy his engagement he is willing to take a swig from Mac’s bottle, and he’s willing to follow Keyton into the tunnel. Keyton clearly knows tons more about the story than Sammy does, regardless of the fact that he’s from out of town – “from away” – but he’s revealed snippets of that knowledge, enough so that Sammy recognizes his role in The Story, and Sammy recognizes that his own role will be served by finding out what Keyton has to show him.

Rules – there really aren’t rules. There are principles and techniques which – in general – tend to make writing stronger and more effective for a lot of readers, but they’re not “rules.” If they are, then I agree that “rules are made to be broken” and don’t even get into “exception that proves the rule” because that’s a blurt than which there’s are few more misunderstood maxims. But the point is that you can’t evaluate writing in terms of adherence to rules, only in terms of how it affects you (and no one else) as a reader. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I would expand your early definition about ‘take place within his or her field of vision’ to include the other 4 senses. One of the jobs of the narrator is to set the scenes.
    A lot of good settings involve hearing the wind, waves, crickets (or not hearing crickets), etc. even for a blind character/narrator.
    A first-person subjective narrator can smell the pizza shop under the apartment murder scene, can feel the numbing cold of falling through the ice, and even starving can taste the tang of spoiled meat.
    Don

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

About Dean Quarrell

Mr. Quarrell was born in 1946, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has so far survived various public schools, community college, university (his baccalaureate degree is in English but written in Latin), the US Air Force, and various employment, including 30 years in the software industry. He lives and writes in New Hampshire.

Category

Writing, (noun & verb)