Monday, April 29, 2013

point of view - multiple narrators and time slots

Deciding on the best point of view, or narrator's perspective(s), to unfold your story on the page can be an important step toward achieving success with the cast of characters and thematic material at hand.  The point of view (POV) consideration used to be loaded with rules for the writer, and any disregard of those rules was regarded as a sign of the amateur writer, or if published so, usually the sign of a well-known writer who could sit above the fray.

An article by Liz Radford in Writer's Chronicle (May, 2013) featured an interview with author Audrey Niffenegger, focused on POV.  Niffenegger has authored two best-seller novels that make highly effective, and instructive use of multiple POV structures. The Time Traveler's Wife (2003; 3 million copies internationally, and followed by a movie) has two principal narrators, and Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) has eight or ten narrators, including ghosts.

Niffenegger says, "With first person point of view, you have all the advantages of being very close to that character, and you have more or less unlimited access to them, insofar as they have access to themselves.  This certainly has its charms.  But you're experiencing every other character through the narrator's biases.  The writer has to work extra hard if the reader's understanding is going to be larger than the character's."  Those final two sentences are well worth thinking about for any writer.

To round out Niffenegger's POV philosophy, "With third person point of view you have many more options.  Sometimes you can be very close, sometimes farther away, and you don't have to stick with a permanent vantage point.  As long as you practice consistency and signal clearly about what you're doing, you can create many possible combinations of distance and closeness.  The narrator is allowed to add whatever information needs adding that the characters may not be observing, so you have more scope."

In discussing her POV concerns while writing Her Fearful Symmetry, and facing an expanding cast of characters with no one character she could follow all the time, Niffenegger recalls, "I'd been reading War and Peace in which Tolstoy skims along and changes point of view, sometimes within the paragraph.  If he wants to just look at something for a second, he'll pop into somebody's head and then pop out again.  It's quite nice.  I wanted to do that."  Similarly, in another place she says, "There's no reason why, for a sentence or two, I can't just wander into someone's head, even if they're not going to be a major part of it.  That's something I really love about Mrs. Dalloway.  Virginia Woolf just briefly strolls into peoples' minds and then wanders away.  You never see them again, and that's fine."

Radford remarks, "In Her Fearful Symmetry, there are instances during which we are privy to four characters' thoughts on a single page.  This happens seamlessly, without distracting the reader.  Any tips and tricks you can share for accomplishing fluidity like this?"

Niffenegger replies, "You want to keep voices differentiated so that you're signaling the reader when you change characters.  Also, there's no point in leaving someone's head just to get an identical viewpoint from somebody else.  Signaling is nuts and bolts.  I italicize thoughts.  I constantly tag "Robert thought," "Elspeth said."  Simple mechanicals."

The complete article has a wealth of information.  Niffenegger has a buoyant personality and some excellent advice, and Radford did a fine job of exploring the author's approach to POV and related matters.  Worth reading.

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