Monday, October 28, 2013


I've been struggling with viewpoint. These are my musings.

Second person is rejected out of hand. It makes me think of Zork. So we're down to first person and third person.

When it comes to third person, I incline toward a limited point of view restricted to a single character, with very few of even that character's thoughts and feelings. Basically, the very opposite of Dune and its sequels, which I find unreadable now because of their constant viewpoint-switching and expression-of-thoughts-through-italics.

The Lord of the Rings is less restrictive than I like to be, but I think it's successful. It employs a limited third-person point of view but switches between characters periodically, generally from one hobbit to another. Thoughts are revealed chiefly through actions, conversations, and interior locutions. When a hobbit isn't involved, as when Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli pursue the orcs across Rohan, the narration is more remote. It's interesting that, as Frodo comes more and more under the power of the One Ring, the viewpoint transfers from him to Sam. We thus almost always have a humble, down-to-earth hobbit witness.

Limited third person is probably the best for epic fantasies and sword-and-sorcery tales. Restriction to a single character at a time and reticence to jump into minds gives it an immediacy that Dune somehow lacks, coming off as immature and artificial instead. It also gives the author freedom to include a paragraph or two that an ordinary first-person narrator would never say of himself. For instance, if the narrator were an excellent organist or pit-fighter (or both!), he could hardly say so without sounding like an ass. First person is usually only adopted in action stories when the narrator isn't the real hero; Moby-Dick comes to mind, as do A. Merrit's The Moon Pool, Poul Anderson's World Without Stars, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and various other things, both good and not so good.

There are exceptions, of course. Two that come to mind are the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, both particularly beloved by me. It's hard to write a book in which the narrator is the main protagonist without making him sound like a boastful jerk. Burroughs avoids it through making John Carter, Warlord of Mars, something of a doofus; and he abandons the first-person point of view in the fourth installation, Thuvia, Maid of Mars (my personal favorite), in which the protagonist is the serious-minded Carthoris. A felicitous change! It was the first I read of the series, and my fancy would never have been caught by a narrator's ruminations as it was by the tapping of Thuvia's shapely foot as she sat on the bench of polished ersite beneath the gorgeous blooms of the pimalia. As for BOTNS, the narrator, Severian, has in fact been frequently charged with being a jerk. I don't find this to be so myself, but, as I said, it's hard to avoid giving the impression.

Raymond Chandler completely sidesteps the problem. How, exactly? I suppose through having a narrator who cracks wise all the time and doesn't mind seeming ridiculous, but partly also through narrating actions rather than thoughts and a habitual attention to seemingly trivial details. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, another favorite of mine, is also first-person, and operates much the same way. For the record, I find Chandler's later novels, like The Long Goodbye, much less enjoyable because the narrator has grown dour and self-righteous.

I'm in the process of chronicling the adventures of a youth who's just come of age. He's sanguine, in the sense of the theory of humors. I originally wrote the first novel in limited third person, but it just seemed too distant to me, so I rewrote it in first person. Of course I had to expunge some passages I rather liked, etc., etc. The benefit, from a practical point of view, is that I can address the reader to some extent without breaking the spell of the story. The first-person narrator can say things the omniscient narrator never could. He can say, "The real reason, of course, was that I…" whereas saying something like "The real reason, of course, was that he…" makes me think of The House of Seven Gables. Certain things, such as fight and sex scenes, require great delicacy, to which I hope I am equal. But, as I've mentioned in this space before, Chandler is my great exemplar here.

It might seem that having a first-person point of view can restrict the outcome of the story — the narrator must make it out alive, right? — but I don't feel that this is so. To be pedestrian about it, the novel could always be a posthumous "manuscript," as in C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, or entries from a "diary," as in Dracula. The narrator could also simply be dead, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, with no explanation as to how he could be narrating the story. This is fantasy, right? The poet-scribe could have received his story from the world of the dead through being impaled on an ash tree for nine days and nine nights, which is how I generally get my own ideas.

Maybe, though, it isn't necessary to be strictly first- or third-person. Plenty of novels get creative with switching viewpoints. Some, such as Dracula or Carrie, attempt verisimilitude through presenting themselves as documents. Others — the works people call "experimental" and "modern," although in speculative fiction these are apparently synonyms for "derivative" and "quickly dated" — are even more unclassifiable. After all, anything is possible.

Personally, I can't stand Ulysses and always skip the social movement parts of The Grapes of Wrath. For me, The Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick are more useful examples of voice-variation; The Book of the New Sun seems to take the latter as a model in this respect. But this kind of writing calls for great skill on the part of the writer, and, more importantly, great trust on the part of the reader, trust that I have yet to earn.

So for now I think I'll stick to a colorful, action-oriented first-person point of view.

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