My favorite point of view in a novel—whether I am reading it or writing it—is a close third person. I want to be in one character’s head, but I don’t want to be that character, which is more of a first person point of view. I want to see the character and see what he sees. If it’s cold, I want the character to tell me it is cold by saying it or shivering or worrying about his fingers because he can no longer feel them. And used sparingly, I also want to slip outside of that person for commentary about what is going on around him (as I am writing this, I am thinking of Tommy in THE DUTIFUL SON).
One of my favorite novels, Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Shipping News, employs a close third person, though not always from the main character’s point of view. The story is about a down-on-his-luck guy named Quoyle who moves to his ancestral home of Newfoundland and slowly learns that despite his seemingly cursed past, he can have a better life.
Occasionally Proulx pulls the point of view back a bit, becoming more omniscient. In one scene, Quoyle is preparing a poorly constructed boat he had just purchased for its first trip. Proulx notes that “Quoyle didn’t see he’d mounted the motor in a position that would force the bow up like the nose of a bird dog.” In essence, she steps us out of his “sphere of knowledge” for a minute to tell us something he didn’t know.
Personally, I wouldn’t have written that revelation that way. I would have let calamity happen and then let him be chastised by his more boat-savvy friends. Or I would have let someone tell him the motor is mounted wrong and have him ignore the person’s advice, which would have been a fitting response from this character.
And as an example from my writing, something important happens in THE DUTIFUL SON that Tommy wasn’t there to see but needs to know:
A dozen eggs thrown at the Summer Falls post office. It was a simple, childish prank, far less sophisticated, symbolic, and damaging than hanging a cat, toppling a tombstone, or vandalizing a bridge. People reported that it took Susan Elmhurst a whole day to wash the congealed mess of yolk, white, and suspended bits of shell from the windows and clapboards. When asked if she needed help, she flat out refused. This was her shame. She would take care of it herself.
“Mebbe it’s payback for helping that lawyer.” Tommy heard that from one farmer who’d seen her working on the windows.
Tommy wasn’t there, but he learned the story from someone who was. And using this technique, it allowed me to get in there a bit, too. Words like “symbolic” are not words Tommy would use but words allowable in third person. I, the writer, am telling this story to you, after all. If I had written in first person, that would be a no-no.
One style of writing I can’t abide is one in which the point of view shifts within a chapter. Or even worse, one that switches from paragraph to paragraph. To me that’s just story-telling laziness. The writer doesn’t need to have a character tease out another’s thoughts or motivations by what he experiences. That other person, who momentarily owns the point of view, just tells us. I’ve already said my piece on The Art of Fielding, but suffice it to say the author’s frequent use of this style is one of the reasons why I am not a fan of that novel.
Though THE DUTIFUL SON has one point of view throughout the whole story, my second novel MEN OF SORROWS has three points of view. But never is there more than one point of view per chapter.
If you want to read more on this, whether you’re a reader or a writer, the aptly named Francine Prose has a great chapter on narration in her book Reading Like A Writer. It’s another book I read often.
What is your favorite point of view for a novel? Close third? Omnipresent third? First person? The rare second person?