Saturday, August 01, 2009

Five Blind Men and an Elephant

It’s appropriate that the point of view question has come up right now, since I’m in the middle of writing a book that has more POVs than anything else I’ve ever done.  I didn’t plan for it to be that way.  But every piece of fiction I have written come into being in its own unique way.  This novel even has a mixture of first and third person - one first person narrator and three or four narrow third person POVs. I am not only the writer, but I’m the reader, too, and I want to know what different observers are thinking and about what happens.  Whether the end product retains all these POVs remains to be seen, but at least during the process of creation, the story seems to call for it.

I don’t really have a preference about point of view when I read a novel.  I tend to like first person, because I like how first person reveals character so intimately.  But I don’t mind if the author observes the action through more than one character, as long as I can keep everyone straight.  As Rick pointed out, that’s when multiple POV becomes annoying.  Multiple POV can be quite effective, I believe, but the writer has to have the skill to pull it off.  This is why it’s hard to make generalizations about technique.  If it works, it works.  Who is the best choice to narrate the events of your novel?  What do you want to reveal?  Multiple POV can reveal your story from several different perspectives, sort of like the five blind men describing the elephant.  One feels its ear and says it’s very like a fan. Another feels its leg and compares it to a tree.  The third runs his hands along its side and describes it as a wall.  In the end, the readers can combine all five descriptions and come up with an elephant.

Voice is a whole other ball of wax.  I was discussing the idea of voice with my husband last night, and he pointed out that there are two kinds of ‘voice’ in a novel.  The voices of the characters, and the overall voice of the author. 

For character voice, I very much like John’s comment comparing writing fiction to acting, in that you have to inhabit the character in order to be able to present his true voice.  You have to know how your character thinks and behaves so intimately that she practically takes on a life of her own, and it feels almost like you’re simply reporting her thoughts and actions, rather than creating them yourself.  I suppose the question then becomes, how many characters in your novel can you inhabit so thoroughly that you can present their points of view in a natural and interesting way? 

But the author’s voice is something else.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard writers say, “I was finally successful when I found my true voice”.  I’ve said it myself.  Your ‘voice’ is your own unique way of perceiving the world.  It’s the way you put things that’s yours alone.  How do you find your distinctive voice? Like any other art, you have to build your basic skills, first.  If you are a violinist, you have to learn to read music, bowing, fingering techniques.  Then you have to practice until your fingers bleed.  If you’re a painter, you have to learn about colors and pigments, composition, styles, then practice until your fingers bleed.  If you’re a writer ... well,you get the idea.  Then, once you have the chops, once you’ve mastered your art, you may be able to stop copying your teachers and other virtuosos and begin to do your own thing.  You have to be brave, though.  Don’t try to write like anyone else You have to trust your own instincts.  You have to reveal yourself. 


Anonymous said...


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points. Although I usually find multiple POVs a little jarring, when the author is skilled, I don't notice the shifts as much.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Rick Blechta said...

What, no midgets? Your postings are shite without the midgets. I suppose you could substitute dancing elephants, if you want, but you have to give us something!

Donis Casey said...

Maybe we do need a spam filter after all.

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