Sunday, February 25, 2007

point of view thoughts

Point of View is a writing concept in which it can be easy to err. For most of my YA fiction I’ve either used first-person, or third-person limited, and lately, more of the latter. I had come to believe it gave more freedom than first-person, but some critiques of my recent work had me wondering whether I’ve completely understood the third-person POV, or perhaps the boundaries are shifting today.

I think one of the great instructors of creative writing, as well as being a first-rate author, was John Gardner. His book, “The Art of Fiction,” (1984), is an outstanding craft book. In reviewing some of Gardner’s comments on POV, I noticed that long ago I highlighted this passage:

“We may go along for years without ever noticing that the third-person-limited point of view is essentially sappy…the third person limited point of view forces the writer into phony suspense.”

Gardner sets up a story situation in which a man named Alex Strugatsky is taking his Saturday morning ballet class when his mistress, the wife of the local Chief of Police, comes in to stand watching. Alex is distressed—he does not want their affair known, lest the police chief shoot him; but he does not want to be impolite, because his mistress, Genevieve Rochelle, is a beauty. Gardner shows that if we start off this story in the omniscient point of view, as Checkhov would, we can get the important facts in right away and get on to what’s really interesting, such as: What will Alex do? But if the writer starts off in third-person-limited, where, Gardner says, the writer limits himself to the thoughts of the central character, mentioning nothing not directly present in the character’s mind, Alex’s story quickly becomes sappy. The sappiness occurs because the writer has no other way of showing what happens except by somehow putting it into Alex’s head.

However, Gardner’s non-omniscient, third-person POV seems to be broken down into two separate categories by Lynna Williams in her chapter, “And Eyes to See: The Art of Third Person,” in "Creating Fiction," edited by Julie Chekoway. The ‘sappy’ construct of third-person-limited given by Gardner is Williams ‘third-person-unified,’ in which “everything, even the “telling” that goes on in exposition, is filtered through the point-of-view character’s consciousness (see bold passage in Gardner). However, in Williams third-person-limited, the POV character:

“will continue to be our angle of vision on events, and we’ll still have access to her thoughts. But in this use of third person, we’ll also be able to take advantage of objective narration; that is, neutral exposition that is not tied to the character’s consciousness.”

It’s the latter type of third-person limited that I’ve followed, rather than the bold-marked version quoted in Gardner’s discussion. So perhaps I've been correct in my POV treatments. Still, I’m about ready to believe that third-person omniscient may be the more powerful, best, all-around way to go in fiction writing.


Bruce said...


Have you read An Na's Wait for Me? It's narrated in two different points-of-view: first pov for one character, third pov for another... with quite remarkable results.

What do you think Gardner means by "sappy"? My dictionary suggests sappy means "overly sentimental, foolish, or silly." But why should third-person pov shoulder the responsibility of sappiness? Might it not be something else causing the reader to feel the foolishness of the narrator?

Perhaps by sappy, Gardner is suggesting a somewhat superficial characterization? That is, one that doesn't go deeply beneath the surface precisely because the pov won't allow such depth... or because, working in such a confined pov, the author is unable to see very deeply into his or her character?

Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post.

Jack said...

Bruce, Gardner's example of Alex in his third-person limited essentially fits your dictionary description--it's very comic (see pg. 91). One could argue that a skillful writer might have avoided some of the comedy in the sample paragraph Gardner gives. However, it's hard to escape the point of his demonstration, that the omniscient third-person POV would have launched the writer into the more interesting question of 'what will Alex do?" without as much manipulation to get the background out in the open.

Williams definition of third-person limited, however, seems just as efficient to me as omniscient, at least for this example. I wonder what Gardner would have thought of William's more 'freeing' definition of third-person limited?

I'll definitely look at An Na's book. Thanks.

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