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I critique a fair number of works of art before they are seen by the public. While I have critiqued works of visual and industrial art, my forte is in the written word. I have helped other authors develop poems, short stories, novellas, novels, and even non-fiction works. I often come across the same issues in the works of many authors, especially those who are amateurs or just trying to break into the profession. This conversation will highlight one of these common issues and errors. I may do more as time allows.
In most short works, such as a short poem, say a sonnet, point of view is not a big deal. The point of view may be the author of the work, or it may be a character made up for the occasion. When we start writing longer works, especially works of fiction, point of view becomes much more important. It seems that most beginning authors attempt to write from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. This is usually a mistake.
The Omniscient Narrator (ON)
An omniscient narrator knows everything. He knows what all the characters are thinking and feeling. He knows what is going to happen. He knows what the characters did and what they should have done. Omniscient narrators are often used in fairy tales. And that’s great, if you’re writing a fairy tale. But if you’re writing an action/adventure or science fiction novel, it seldom works out well, especially in the hands of an inexperienced writer.
The major problem is that since the omniscient narrator is in all heads if the author is not very, very careful about antecedents, then the reader can get lost as to which head they happen to be in at the moment.
A second problem is that there is nothing hidden from old ON. If the girl likes the guy, ON knows. If the guy likes the girl, ON knows. If not handled very well, it can spoil all the mysteries of life in the story. The reader is left thinking, “Okay, get on with it. If the two just sit down and have a conversation and, you know, communicate, this story is done.”
A third problem is that ON is probably not unreliable. Unreliable narrators are one of the tools that authors have to help hide elements of the plot.
Can omniscient narrators work? Of course, they can. But few inexperienced writers manage very well. Let’s look at some examples where they do work.¹
The Princess Bride—In both the movie and book, there is an omniscient narrator. I suspect more people are familiar with the movie, so let’s stick to that version. First, The Princess Bride happens to be a fairy tale, a genre where omniscient narrators are the default. In the movie, the story is presented within an envelope story of a kid’s being sick at home and his grandfather comes to visit and brings him this book. The grandfather becomes the omniscient narrator, someone who has heard and read the story many times before. This allows him to stop and reassure his grandson or to skip the boring parts. Obviously, the story he is reading also has an omniscient narrator, whose part he reads. In this case, the ON is normal for the genre and also goes a bit meta for fun.
The Great Gatsby—Here, the ON is Nick, a guy somewhat peripheral to the story. He knows everything only because he’s telling it in hindsight. He inserts some things that he found out later as to what was really happening. In this case, the ON is a character in the book who has reason to know everything as he is looking back on the events and reports on them. All of the action happened in the past. A similar thing with an ON character looking back is sometimes done with noir-style detective novels.
Fishing with John—This was a prospective TV show. I am not sure if it ever was actually on TV, but it was later collected as and sold as a DVD. It has a narrator. The basic premise was that John Lurie would go out fishing somewhere with one of his friends, like fishing for sharks with Jim Jarmusch. I believe there were six episodes created, each about half an hour. The first show or two was fairly normal. By maybe the third show, the narrator is throwing in things like, “Can I have a bite of your sandwich?” By the show with Willem Dafoe as guest, the narrator declares that Lurie and Dafoe died in the wilds of Minnesota while ice fishing. At the beginning of the next show, the narrator says something on the order of, “I was just kidding about their dying.” In short, the narrator is totally unreliable. By the final episode, you know he is just making stuff up.
The three types of cases we have looked at with omniscient narrators that work are fairy tales, where the ON is a character looking back on events, and where the ON is a bit meta and possibly unreliable. They might also work for a non-fiction show about animals or planets like Pluto.²
But making it work in a regular action/adventure or science fiction tale is much more difficult. Instead, if one investigates most professionally-published novels, what one finds is the use of Point-of-View Characters.
A point-of-view character (POVC) is simply a character through whose eyes you see the action. Some novels use one point-of-view character, often the protagonist, sometimes in first person. Some will have several POVCs. Some have only a few who switch off, perhaps in alternating chapters. There are any number of ways to do it, depending on the novel and genre.
Now, the type of omniscient narrator who is a character looking back on events, as in The Great Gatsby, is an example of a point-of-view character. It is one character always speaking in the past tense. There is no switching off between characters in this case, although there could be. Imagine a novel or story formed like an after-action report, or maybe as a series of statements from different characters in a police report. One would not know whether any of the POVCs were unreliable. Or, one might have to determine who was and who was not reliable.
Still, with most novels that use multiple POVCs, it is because characters can’t necessarily be everywhere. They certainly can’t be in two places at once, let alone four or five if the action is taking place across the world. It can be a tool to expand the scope of a novel. It can also help get away from a lot of exposition. If the author only has one POVC, and something happens where the POVC is not present, the author has to find a way to relate what has happened. Sometimes, that starts with the POVC character saying, “I found out…” and then the book is on to telling rather than showing, another weakness many writers have, often summed up against by writing teachers with the rule, “Show, don’t tell!” Another was that this information might be conveyed is through a conversation. Another character tells the POVC what happened. Again, “Show, don’t tell!” Now, it’s not a sin against writing if the summary of what happened elsewhere is short, but the longer it goes on, the more chance that the reader is going to lose interest. Kind of like this essay.
The Point-of-View Character and the Classical Unities
The Classical Unities were developed in the Greek period for their plays.¹ Every scene should be at one place, time, and united also in the action. With a novel, one can play with the old unities a bit, but there should be one more unity added: Unity of Point of View. The author should make it very obvious when a point of view changes. My own preference is to have one point of view per section within a chapter. How do we make sections of chapters? Usually with some sort of marker, such as a graphic or something as simple as “***.” For instance here is the end of one section and the beginning of the next from a short story where the young Gabriela is looking for a husband, so her brother takes her to a party where a lot of noblemen can be found:
The duke rolled his eyes, and then said brightly, “Well, I’m sure that there is some domestic crisis I have to attend to somewhere. Hosting a party is like that. Aunt Mary Anne can tell you all about her father and how and when her parents met. Really must be going now.” And off he went.
Gabriela took the old woman’s elbow, “Perhaps there is a quieter place we could speak with less traffic than the gallery?”
“Did Billy mean what I think he meant?” Aunt Mary Anne said.
“Probably, why don’t we find a quiet place to talk?”
Jack changed his clothes after he had gotten home from the party and went back down to his library. Gabriela had been silent in the coach ride home. He found her reading a book.
“It seems that I must be considered a prize,” he said. “Apparently quite a few young ladies had their eye on me. I had no dearth of ladies happy to dance the night away with me.”
Gabriela looked up from her book, “You are a rich and titled nobleman, Jack, and young enough to earn more titles. You could easily wind up a duke if there’s another war. You have famously earned many prizes and come away with tons of prize money. Your seat is very well known and comfortable. You need to try for a duke’s daughter, with a very large dowry.”³
The first section is in the grand portrait gallery of a duke’s country house. It is all through the eyes of Gabriela. The second section is back at Jack’s seat and is through his eyes. And of course, there is the section marker (***) in between. It provides an easy visual clue that a new section is starting and a new point of view may be starting. Another clue in the new section is that it starts with Jack and his actions. Everyone has seen such things in novels, but if one is not planning to write a novel, they are just part of the background, not a major part of the machinery to keep the story moving. Seeing such devices through the eyes of a writer—yes, the writer’s point of view—means understanding the unity involved for each section.
While it might make sense to break the unity of action across multiple sections to create a cliffhanger, preferably with another section from another POVC thrown in the middle once the unities would be violated, it’s time for a new section. For instance, a guy does a bunch of stuff on Friday and then goes to sleep. Saturday morning is probably going to be a new section, just as it would be a new scene in a play. (In the play’s program, it might be labeled: The Next Morning). Again, we have all seen these things, but we may not have paid attention to how they work and what they are doing for the stories.
Switching Points of View
In the section above, I illustrated how one can change points of view. In that particular case, the new section had changed all of the Classical Unities, plus the point of view. They had changed location, it was later in the evening, the action was different, and we changed eyes from sister to brother. But the section can change even if the only thing changing is the point of view (same time, same place, same action):
Pierre shivered as he tried to check his cannon. Why was he so cold? He had heard someone mention fevers and that the English ship might be a plague ship. If he got the fever, maybe they would send him home, if he lived.
They should have reloaded the guns with grape before approaching for a boarding action. Now, he could see down the deck that his ship was being boarded. They must have had thousands of men on that English ship.
He could light a small fire to warm up and be ready to light the slow match for the guns. That would help him think. He was getting no orders from his chain of command.
Tronjoly saw a grappling hook appear on the far side of his ship’s quarterdeck. It was totally opposite from where the British attack was coming. He went to the edge and looked down to see at least fifty British marines climbing up the side of his ship from a ledge of ice below.
He stepped back and started issuing commands, “Repel boarders! Repel boarders! Someone get me an axe!”
He whipped out his sword, but it didn’t have the heft or a sharp enough edge to cut the boarding rope. He stepped back to get a better view of the situation and tripped over one of the men who was manning the quarterdeck guns.
Pierre had gotten his gun pointed in the general vicinity of where the action was, but he had still not been commanded to fire. The heavy work had warmed him slightly. He stood and started to turn as he heard the admiral’s shouting behind him. He had lifted the lit brazier to move it further from the gun when a body slammed into him from behind. He fell, losing his grip on the brazier, which instead of going further from the gun, had hot coals hitting the gun. One of them touched it off. The tampion had not even been removed.
It was time for Jack to release more energy. He looked up into the middle of the cloud ring in the sky just as he heard the first cannon of the day being fired.
Marcus heard the cannon fire followed by a thud and a fwoomp with a wave of extreme heat. He was knocked down by the shockwave. He regained his feet and turned back to where Jack had been. There was a charred skeleton standing there looking upward but with hands outstretched holding a white-hot glowing cannonball and above the air was roiled in a way Marcus had never seen. Far above, it was as if the stem of a mushroom were forming into the cap as clouds formed and rolled outward.
Marcus looked back down to see the skeleton and ball slowly fall backwards onto the deck.
“Fire brigade! Water on this right now!” he shouted.
A few men moved and poured buckets, especially on the melting metal cannonball and the deck around it.³
The above is an excerpt of a much larger sequence of events. In less than a page or two, we have five sections (last only partial). The POVC are, in order: a French sailor manning a small quarterdeck gun, a French admiral, the French sailor again, the British Royal Navy Captain, and a British Lieutenant Colonel of Marines, who happened also to be the British captain’s younger brother. Because it is a battle with a lot of action, the perspective changes often. I could have written it from only the perspective of the main protagonist of the story, Marcus, the Marine colonel. But he could not see or know everything that was happening. By moving around the battle, it was possible to see the full sequence of events. All five sections could be considered the same time, place, and action sequence, but the shifting points of view gave more information and more immediacy to the action.
It should also be obvious that the POVC character is quickly identified, often in the first word of the section: Pierre, Tronjoly, Pierre, Jack, Marcus. It makes it easier for the reader to tell whose head they are in at the moment.
Summary and Questions
So, that is how a point of view character or multiple such characters can be the writer’s friend.
Have you ever taken notice of how this is done in books before? Have you ever seen it done badly? Have you ever tried to write a novel? Did you stay awake through this? Share your experiences, Ricochet.
1. I’m going from memory on these as I have little time to write this. Any errors, please feel free to point and laugh.
2. Thrown in for @gldiii.
3. Excerpts from some of my own unpublished stories that may some day be published.Published in