Every story implies a storyteller. Every storyteller implies a point of view.
Point of view as a technical term refers simply to the choice of personal pronoun that governs a narrative. Though seemingly a mechanical matter, this choice ends up shaping both the story and readers’ responses to it. The options for narrative point of view divide broadly into two groups: those rooted inside the created world, which speak in the first person (I) and those that establish themselves at varying distances outside it, which speak in the third (s/he and they).
The strengths of the first person point of view are considerable. It engages the reader immediately and generates credibility—indeed, it spins the illusion of memoir rather than fiction. Feeling privy to the inner life of the narrator, the “I-as-protagonist,” the reader is hard put not to sympathize with him or her in spite of whatever errors, or even crimes, s/he commits in the course of the story. Just as first person point of view pulls the reader into the created world, it also forces the writer to “live” the story, get beneath its surface, and pay attention to detail. This dynamic makes it a friendly choice for the novice writer.
Maybe we readers bond with first person narrators because we assume they are not going to die on us. If they’re recounting the action, they must have survived it. But for those cases where the protagonist must die, a special version of first person point of view has evolved—the “I-as-witness.” Think of Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby or Chief Bromden in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest observing the downfall of the heroes.
Third person narration offers three general options. Popular among contemporary fiction writers, “limited omniscience” preserves the focus and intensity of the first person but grants more flexibility. The narrator tells the story as if standing in the shoes of one character, yet is not strictly confined to that character’s diction or data bank. In Satan’s Chamber, for example, the third person narration adapts from chapter to chapter to reflect the sensibility of the featured character—language and syntax alter to render the world according to Tory or the world according to Kendacke.
Another modern point of view, also exemplified in parts of Satan’s Chamber, is that of the “fly on the wall”—which sees all but interprets nothing. Cinematic in effect, it may vary angle and distance as a camera does, but it never penetrates surfaces. It observes behavior but doesn’t plumb motivation, thus lending itself to narratives where action rather than character is the driving force.
With “total omniscience,” the hallmark of the nineteenth century classics, the narrator is presumed to have access to all the data in the created world: its past, present, and even future; the inner lives of all its characters; its action here and its action there (“meanwhile, back at the ranch…”). Such an infinity of choices can be staggering to the novice writer.
KNOW YOUR NARRATOR
Journalists are supposed to report just the facts—that is, tell their stories without the intrusion of personality with all its quirks and biases. Creative writers, on the other hand, deliberately build on the intimate connection between teller and tale. If not at the beginning of the writing process, then somewhere soon along the way, they establish the location in time and place of the narrator, the particularities of his or her voice. In cases of first person narration, of course, the narrator is an actual character in the story, complete with oddities, ambitions, and needs. But even in third person narration, the more you define your narrator, the more dynamic your story will be.
Take any newspaper report of a crime, with its dry who, what, when, where, and how. Then imagine the contrasting stories that would unfold if they were told from the perspective of the perp’s mother, then the victim’s mother. Neither woman would ever mention herself; it would be third person narration. But their versions of the facts would surely differ, and since each would be telling her story for a different reason, speaking from a different emotion, the stories would also contrast in tone and style. In effect, each narrator would create a different world.
If you feel your writing is slipping into neutral and losing propulsion, it may be a good idea to check your narrator. Animals, dead people, murderers, circus performers— all have been called on by writers to generate unique, engaging stories, particularly in fiction. But you don’t have to go that far. Whether you’re working with a fictional narrator or yourself (as in memoir), try to answer some key questions about the voice that is telling your story. Why is this self telling this story? Whom is she telling it to? What is her purpose? What does she need? What are the strengths of her character? What are her flaws? What, in the time frame of the narrative, doesn’t she know? Pinning down these particulars will not just energize your story. The more you define and grasp your narrative voice, the more it will push you along.
One choice of perspective that remains perennially fruitful lends itself to both fiction and memoir: that of the outsider, ignorant or innocent of the ways of the world he has been plunged into. The provincial bumpkin arrives in the big city, for example. A child navigates the chaotic tensions of a family reunion. Karen Gans and Larry Buchanan try to befriend the inhabitants of an age-old town in Bolivia in The Gift of El Tio. In these cases, learning curve is just another name for dramatic arc.