Whose Point of View?

onion, chopping

(photo: Steve McFarland, creative commons license)

Point of view is one of those tricky concepts for writers that is easier to talk about than to accomplish. I’ve recently spent a lot of time in p.o.v. purgatory in my own writing and seen a heavenly example, as well.

It is, of course, possible to write with an omniscient p.o.v. —with the narrator “the voice of god” that sees all, knows all, and can delve into anyone’s and everyone’s thoughts at will. I’m very comfortable writing in the omniscient p.o.v., moving my characters around like chess pieces. Unfortunately, the omniscient p.o.v. is out of style these days, and the closer in to a single character the writer is (though that character may change from scene to scene), the happier readers are thought to be.

I see the scenes in my novel unfold in front of me like a movie. And like in a movie, I “know” what each of my characters is thinking and why they say and do what they say and do next, and I have a bad habit of writing that down. Fortunately (for me), my talented editor is a bear on p.o.v. and dings me for all sort of infractions I would have thought, “Hey, that’s OK.” And fortunately, I cannot peer into her mind when she’s had to flag a p.o.v. problem for the umpteenth time. I can only guess what she’s thinking—and it ain’t pretty.

Here are a couple of examples, from obvious to more subtle. For all of them, imagine you’re writing a scene in which the p.o.v. character is a chef named Tony:

  • Tony sat across the table from his best customer. Mr. Fatwallet studied the menu, trying to decide between the grilled halibut and the sweetbreads. (DING—Tony doesn’t know what Mr. Fatwallet is trying to decide between, unless Fatwallet says so. Solution: the writer could put that as a piece of dialog. “Tony, help me out here. I’m trying to decide between . . .”)
  • Tony sat across the table from his best customer. Mr. Fatwallet hesitated, then said, “I can’t decide . . .” (DING—Tony doesn’t know Mr. Fatwallet is hesitating—which comes out of his internal uncertainty—until he speaks. The delay could have occurred because his attention drifted to the dishy new server. Solution: Don’t describe it as a hesitation, but as a pause: After a minute, Mr. F. said . . . Or, put the problem in Tony’s head: Tony could have chopped three onions while waiting for Mr. Fatwallet to speak.)
  • Tony was in the kitchen, chopping onions. He ran cold water on a clean towel and brought it to his reddened eyes. (DING—I can hear my editor saying, “He can’t know his eyes are red unless he’s looking in a mirror!” Solutions: a] new text – Chopping onions always turned Tony’s eyes the color of a slab of ham; b] someone else notices – Mr. Fatwallet stuck his head into the kitchen. “Tony, have you been bawling?” c] take the easy way out – He ran cold water on a clean towel and brought it to his streaming eyes.)

I’m sure my editor was tearing her hair out at the merry way I delved into the thoughts of everyone in scenes, at least in these more subtle ways, and here I thought I was p.o.v.-savvy! But that’s called head-hopping and roundly frowned upon.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about p.o.v. is writing the review of David Gilbert’s & Sons yesterday, I was reminded how the author used p.o.v. shifts to make his first-person narrator invisible. Philip Topping is the “I” on the opening page of the novel: “I myself remember watching friends . . .” We’re definitely in Philip’s head as the funeral of his father gets under way. “All this happened in mid-March, twelve years ago. I recall it being the first warm day . . .” And then, seamlessly, we are in the head of Andrew Dyer, the famous author, reduced to trolling the internet to crib a suitable eulogy.

In the first chapter, when I realized I was in Andrew’s thoughts, I had a “what just happened?” moment, so I turned back and noted how deliberately and subtly Gilbert had made the transition, erasing Philip from the scene. Repeatedly in this novel, Philip is there, then events occur that he cannot have been witness to. Where did he go? Is he the fly on the wall, the ear at the door? When the author returns to Philip’s voice, the reader is as startled to encounter him again as the Dyers, father & sons, are, when they run into him in the hallway of the apartment, at the breakfast table, on the stairs.

Near the end, Philip says “ . . . I see Andy Dyer in the distance . . . I lift my head to be seen, but he doesn’t see me, like all those goddamn Dyers. He doesn’t even see me when I wave.” The effect is heartbreaking and so are the consequences of Philip’s invisibility. By Gilbert’s manipulation of point of view, he’s made the character like Philip truly work.

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