A Question of Point of View — When to Break the Rules that Are Made to be Broken
I am writing a new novel. I want my new novel to be stunning. Epic. I want it to canvas an entire society. Love and immigration are at the center of it, as in all my stories: the mountains one cannot avoid, the rivers that divide the landscape. But unlike in my other books, immigration will be continuous, everlasting, and not just because my characters think about it and experience it and are shaped by it, but because their journey never stops. From Russia and from Poland to Moldova, from Moldova to Romania, to Israel, to France, and to America. A large number of diverse characters come together, like springs that join to create brooks that form streams that form rivers. Like rivers that flow into the ocean. So the question is who will tell the story? Whose voice will we hear? Whose point of view?
Instinctively, I decide to use the third person omniscient point of view. It seems quick and easy. It makes sense, really. It gives me most freedom because if I write from an omniscient point of view, I can describe, explain, preach, look deep into my character’s souls and minds and interject my own vision and life experience. All I need is to be captivating. I can provoke the reader. I can start a scene in one room with my protagonist on the sofa and a yellow canary in a cage by the window, tell my reader what the protagonist is thinking, why the bird is fluffing its feathers, move to another room on another continent in another century and describe a totally different scene, and come back to my original scene without hesitation.
To see how things would be coming together, I write a few dozen pages and realize I am faithfully using the third-person limited point of view. That’s because my last three novels were conceived that way (first-person limited point of view, actually, which I think is very similar). Simply put, I am used to writing this way. We are prisoners of our own history, somebody told me.
So I start thinking about point of view in general, and talk about it with my wife and with the people at my novel workshop I attend every second Tuesday.
Concepts get confusing, overlapping, intertwining. I get frustrated and, like most people, I turn to the Internet and to the old books I have about writing. What a deluge of information!
There is an objective point of view, when the narrator “never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer.” Then there are the first-person singular or plural points of view, second-person point of view, and third-person limited or omniscient points of view; and there are novels with multiple points of view. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages. There are examples cited on line (Sense and Sensibility, For Whom the Bells Toll, The Scarlet Letter, As I Lay Dying, To Kill a Mockingbird). I think about some of my own recent and not so recent experiences: A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin, that starts in the third-person and, after about 200 pages, switches to first-person, The Inseparables, by Stuart Nadler, told in third-person from the points of view of three women alternatively, and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger told in that unforgettable first-person voice of Holden Caulfield.
The first-person or the third-person limited points of view are more intimate, more immediate. Here is what I read in The Elements of Fiction Writing — Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card: “What the limited third-person narrator can’t do is match the omniscient narrator’s brevity…Why, for heaven’s sake, is limited third-person the overwhelming dominant narrative voice in American fiction today? It’s a matter of distance. As the omniscient narrator slips in and out of different characters’ minds, he keeps the reader from fully engaging with any of the characters…The limited third-person strategy is to trade time for distance.”
And brevity is what I look for — I am ready to trade distance for brevity. I also read that the third-person omniscient is 19th century. Preaching is so passé. But you have freedom when you use this technique and you know what you are doing.
Yes, I suddenly remember! In literature you can do what you want as long as it works.
Whose point of view is it, anyway?