It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on craft, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about POV.
In every discipline there are some concepts which are particularly hard for students to absorb. In linguistics there’s the concept of the phoneme, or, on the syntactic level, the passive. I run into really intelligent people who are confused and frightened by the passive. On a few occasions I have used a napkin in a restaurant to do my little passive spiel, and almost always it’s like coaxing somebody out on a high wire with no net. Once that’s been managed, I sometimes trot out my second party trick, which requires another napkin: the great vowel shift, or the house/husband goose/gosling puzzle.
Back to POV. In introductory creative writing classes it’s often simply explained with who’s the camera? — which character’s head are we in (assuming third person limited POV), through whose consciousness is this scene being filtered?
Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of sloppy POV work. A scene opens with the POV character coming into a house where he’s never been before, meeting a person he wants to like. The details of what we as readers see can’t go beyond what that character sees and perceives. Which depends, in turn, on the character’s powers of observation, what’s on his mind, his background, and whether he got enough sleep last night.
There’s a famous writing exercise by John Gardner that goes something like this: character walking down a hill in a small city towards a bay. The weather is bright and warm. Describe the town and street from this character’s POV…
1. a woman who has just got a promotion she worked hard for
2. a teenager whose brother was just arrested for drug dealing
3. a man who has been spiraling deeper and deeper into depression
4. a five year old child on his or her way to the library with a parent
Each of these people will experience the street and the town differently. Of these four, only one is likely to notice, for example, that the crocus are coming up on the lawn outside the post office.
In the last couple days I’ve read passages in published novels where tough guys have observed things so counter to the characterization that I was pulled out of the story. Of course, a big bad detective could take note of the fact that the dead woman is wearing lilac pedalpushers, but then at some point you have to show me that he grew up doing his homework at the back of his mother’s dress shop, and has a quiet interest in watercolor. Otherwise it’s clear that the female author is observing and pushing her big bad male character to do the same. That’s classic author intrusion.
At different times, different POV approaches are fashionable among writers. First person narratives really had a strange hold on novels for a while there, but I think (I hope) that’s relaxing a little. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won a lot of literary prizes and was widely read, is written in omniscient. I can’t remember the last contemporary novel I’ve read in omniscient POV. I was quite shocked, and then I settled down into the story and I admired the chance she took (which paid off).
Really, all you have to do is this: decide what approach you’re going to take, and stick to it. And hope for an editor who reads closely enough to catch this kind of slip.