Sunday, June 6, 2010

A thought on point-of-view

I am reading James Wood's "How Fiction Works" and he has a very intelligent argument that first person and third person are kind of the same. Third person tends to be a mixture of the voices of the author and the character; the author chooses the words, but at the same time, things are seen as the character sees them, and the voice adopts qualities of the character.

At the same time, in first person, there is a bit of suspension of disbelief going on; the author writes from the character's perspective as the author would. The character would rarely be as coherent in the storytelling, or use the kinds of words authors are likely to choose. A first person narrator is likely to also notice details that a person in the actual situation would not notice or mention, because the character's viewpoint has to be the "camera" for the scene.

So first person and third person tend to both be a mingling of the author's voice and the character's voice. The main difference is that third person can shift among perspective characters, and that third person narration allows the author to drop in his viewpoint where it might contrast with the character's.

I think that plot and story are constructs, and while it's important to work within the constraints of form, I find the conventions a little bit infantile. The "rules" of story assure readers that they're working in a world where an interventionist God (the author) is pulling all the strings.

Rules are obeyed, expectations are met, problems find resolutions. Death is the culmination of a plot arc, or a step along some other journey. Nothing is arbitrary. There is an understanding of who is "safe," and within that framework, danger is a source of excitement rather than anxiety. Tragic occurrences are telegraphed in advance and readers are prepared for them.

I prefer first person, because I like the idea that the narrative is imposed on the events by the character, who is trying to find a meaning in his own life, and to impose his version of things and his idea of the journey he wants to take onto the messiness of actual events. The structure therefore seems to be shaped by his viewpoint rather than the grand architect.

This feels to me like it has a bit more verisimilitude than the idea of an omniscient author/God guiding the characters and events to where they need to go, though, in fact, it may merely be an extra layer of artifice.

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