Monday, March 4, 2013

The Writer: God of Small Things

When writing a novel or a short story, choosing the correct point of view (POV) for the narrative can be one of the most important decisions that you make. There are some things that are becoming clearer to me over time.

I usually like reading books written in the first person POV, because I feel close to the action. I experience what the character experiences as that character experiences it. Oddly, though, I don’t particularly like writing in the first person. Actually, that’s not quite true, or, at least, it is not the whole story. Many of the things that I have written actually started life in first person. However, after a time, I usually find that other characters begin to demand my attention. This means that I want to know more about them than my “I” knows, and I want to start seeing things through their eyes. I have tried varying the POV so that a particular “I” is the centre of each chapter. However, after a time, another limitation of this POV asserts itself. Consider a passage such as the following:

His eyes darted from side to side. He fiddled nervously with the toggle of his jacket, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

How would one write that from a first person POV and reproduce the same effect? This simply does not sound right:

My eyes darted from side to side. I fiddled nervously with the toggle of my jacket and beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

It is difficult to imagine a person thinking about themselves in this way. They might say “I looked from side to side.” But if I want the action of playing with the toggle of the jacket to be an unconscious action? I cannot have the “I” noticing it at all. This has to be observed from another perspective. Similarly, when a character enters a room, or a scene somewhere, I want to be able to describe that scene in a way that a person would not, normally, describe it to themselves. In other words, I find, as a writer, that I want to have more power over the narrative than a first person POV gives me. I am a megalomaniacal writer.

A restricted third person POV provides some of this power, particularly if this shifts from character to character as the scene changes. I always feel that too many shifts within a scene have an untidy feel, although I do find myself doing this from time to time. However, even using this style, I still find myself limited. I want to be able to say of a character: “He didn’t see the movement in the shadows.” If I say this, I am no longer writing strictly from that character’s POV. So…

So I usually end up playing God, using the “omnipotent third person” POV. And I see everything that I have made, and behold, it is… Well, to be honest, it could use some re-editing.


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