Thursday, December 08, 2005
Third Person POV--Part 6
Two days ago, Becky left an interesting comment regarding our third person POV topic. She was right to say that the narrative voice in the passage from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities remains equally distant from all characters. Like a camera in the room or up in a tree somewhere, taking all action in, but showing the thoughts of none. This is the extreme version of third person omniscient, i.e., the most removed form of voice.
Then there’s the omniscient form on the other end of the spectrum—that modern day omniscient that we often call head-hopping. Rather than being removed from characters, it zooms in to become close third person—but doesn’t stay in any one character’s head for very
long, flicking from one to the next. Becky came up with this as an example:
John flashed his brightest smile. What a lovely woman--as courteous as she was beautiful. And she was beautiful, a real example of what a Christian woman should be. Good thing Katie was in her fifth grade class. He shifted his gaze to his wife.
Angie glanced at her husband before staring at Miss Snyder once again. That woman had the gall to show up here after her rude comments. How was a mother to teach her daughter in such a classroom environment with such a teacher.
When Miss Snyder noticed Angie's penetrating gaze, she nodded toward the couple. Not that she wanted to. They were the epitome of all she desired--loving, healthy, rich--and seeing them sent twists of jealousy through her. If only she could swallow the biting words that jumped to her mind, but if she approached their table, something vicious might slip out. Then the whole community would know what she already knew about herself. She couldn't risk that and would need to stay clear of their table.
Three paragraphs, three POVs. A rather extreme example of head-hopping, as most authors who do this don’t move quite so quickly from character to character. But Becky wrote it like this to make her point, and it’s a good one: "This shift from person to person to person keeps readers wondering what really is the case. We have such disparate views and if that went on for long, readers would quickly lose interest because trying to tell which character was seeing things most accurately would be hard and not having one character to cheer for would leave readers unsympathetic to any."
Yes! This I what I feel when I read head-hopping scenes. I don’t know where to land as a reader. I feel pulled here and there. And as a result of being yanked around, I feel what is no doubt the opposite effect from what the writer want me to feel. If the author is trying to give me equal intimacy with all the characters, he/she has actually cost me intimacy with any of them.
So what are we left with from third person omniscient? From the Dickens’ example, less intimacy with the characters because the voice is so removed. From Becky’s example, less intimacy with the characters because the voice is so close and constantly moving. Very different forms of omniscient, but the same result.
This is why, when new authors say to me, well, shoot, so-and-so changes POV in a scene, so why shouldn’t I get away with it? My answer—why would you want to? I strongly believe the writing’s forced to be better, ultimately more intimate and strong, when we stick with one POV per scene. I’m not denying there are good, successful storytellers out there who don’t follow this guideline. But I do argue that those good writers would create stronger scenes if they decided not to head-hop.
Head-hopping is easier. That’s why so many new authors naturally gravitate toward it. (I certainly did.) And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from experience about writing fiction, it’s this: if it’s easy, it’s probably wrong.
In summing up, I wanted to discuss third person POV to show that it isn’t just one POV. It’s broken down into different kinds—close, removed and omniscient. And omniscient is even further broken down into two kinds—the old, “classics” kind of totally distant voice, and the modern kind that’s called “omniscient” because it knows all, but in reality is third person close in disguise—that jumps from character to character within a scene. So if you hear an author say, "Changing POV was good enough for the classics authors; it's good enough for me," make sure they know what they're talking about. They're thinking distant omniscient, while most likely planning to write close third person head-hopping omniscient. They're comparing apples and oranges.
Thoughts as we close this topic? Comments, disagreements, agreements? Did you learn anything new about the various third person POV forms?