Monday, January 10, 2011
First, Third, Multiple POVs: ¿Who should tell the story?
In days of old, authors were omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. They were privy to every little thought that went through their characters’ heads, and, being great gossips, they disclosed them to their readers. This viewpoint mélange is known as “head-hopping” and it is a sin that no contemporary writer should ever attempt to commit. Novice writers skirt the caveat by narrating their stories in the first person singular, but even that intimate narrator has its limits. So, which point of view is the ideal one?
First of all, let´s review the types of raconteurs available to us. The most common is third person singular, but in order to avoid the dreadful “head-hopping,” the storytelling must rely on only one character’s perspective. Although the rules are flexible enough to permit changes of point of view, preferably each chapter should be told from a single POV.
As every novice writer knows, avoiding head-hopping is a difficult task. It´s always easier to go for the first person cop-out… only to discover that it also presents drawbacks. Having little knowledge of what other characters really think invites to constant speculation. Terms such as “apparently,” “it appears,” and “it seems,” become crutch words and the description turns clunky. Moreover, there are readers who actually hate first person narrative!
In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron presents action and characters through the eyes of Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South, living in post-war Brooklyn. However, the true protagonist is Sophie, a Polish refugee with a dark past. At times, Stingo has Sophie tell her story in pages- long dialogue. Often, the author cheats by having Stingo describe Sophie´s past with the excuse that he has come to see Poland (and her life) through her eyes.
Nevertheless, Stingo also disrupts Sophie´s narrative with his own perspective. At some moment, he claims Sophie lied when she said she had no lover before Nathan Landau. Then, he proceeds to tell us of Sophie´s brief affair with a Polish underground fighter. As readers we are assaulted by these overlapping POVs, but the writing is so masterful, we never complain. Alas, I don´t think I could get away with that, so I am a great believer in having more than one POV.
I read somewhere that Gone with the Wind is told from Scarlett’s viewpoint because she is a much more interesting character than Melanie. I strongly disagree with that statement. Once in a while, Peggy Mitchell regales us with Melanie´s perspective (an example is her relationship with Rhett after Bonnie´s death) changing our whole perception of Melly and the story.
Having multiple narrators has its great advantages, as William Faulkner’s fans may tell you. As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are masterpieces of American Literature, in spite of their variety of POVs. But if you want to go Faulkner´s way you’ll run into a couple of questions. How many narrators should you have? How many are too many? Who should they be? How should they appear? Should you have multiple POVs from the start or they should pop up at different stages along the storyline?
My last novel presents an apparently insurmountable problem. The first part describes the antics of the heroine, from birth until she meets the man of her life. So far so good. But it happens that the hero who blindsides her has a past so steeped in mystery and rumor, that it’s not simply a matter of having him tell it to Violante (yes, that´s my heroine’s name) over tea. Since I wanted him to remain mysterious, he could not narrate his own tale. So, like Conan Doyle, I created a Watson-like character to sing the chanson de geste of this larger-than-life protagonist. And then trouble began to brew.
Viktor, the second narrator, turned up to be such a fascinating creature that both my Beta Readers confessed to like him better than the hero! Therefore, I tried keeping his overwhelming presence at a minimum. He ended up reporting only eight out of forty chapters. It just made poor Viktor´s entrances and exits awkward and unbalanced. To be quite frank, I still don´t know what to do with my novel, but it is a good example of the problems that arise in handling more than one POV.
Which viewpoint do you prefer as a reader? As a writer, which narration style would you say it is the most unmanageable?