Sunday, 20 July 2008

On point-of-view

Yesterday my writing group met for yet another all-day brunch. I love these meetings, look forward to them for weeks, especially this one since I missed the gathering in June.

Our mission yesterday was to provide a critique of the first three chapters from one of our group. One of the things that came up was a discussion on point-of-view. This is something that most writers have a strong opinion about, but many readers may not even be aware of.

Control of point of view is often considered a sign of control as a writer. Yet it's something that has changed in style over the years. Once upon a time, authors almost always used an 'omniscient' point-of-view -- a storyteller's view that conveyed the story to the reader from outside of the story. The storyteller, or omniscient voice, tells events as they happen, without being constrained by the individual characters in the story. It allows stories to be told in 'movie style', as though the reader is watching events unfold, able to dip into the thoughts of different characters at different times.

The opposite to omniscient point-of-view is probably 'first person', where the author is strictly limited to the experiences of a single character in the story. Everything -- every sight, smell, thought, sound -- must be experienced by that character. For the reader it forges an intimate relationship with the narrator (or point-of-view character) that is a completely different experience from an omniscient viewpoint. An early example of this is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. We see everything though Jane's eyes, and though we may feel we may like to know what other characters are thinking and feeling, are sympathies lie with Jane and are stronger because of it.

I'm pondering this, because the contemporary trend in fiction is to use omniscient less and less -- although it is still used fairly widely -- and to use first person, or 'third-person intimate' more and more. ('Third person intimate' allows the author to use one or more different viewpoint characters, written in third person, but using the same 'rules' as for first person.) It follows that reader preferences reflect these trends.

How do we consider omniscient these days? Outdated? Completely acceptable? Certainly authors like Matthew Reilly are making a killing using an omniscient viewpoints. But I would hazard to guess they are in the minority. Even JK Rowling and Dan Brown use intimate viewpoints (or relatively so). From my perspective as both a reader and a writer, I much prefer the more intimate viewpoints, where my experience resonates with the characters' experiences.

Which brings me to the manuscript under review/discussion. What viewpoint did it use? Some of us felt it used an omniscient viewpoint, with frequent forays into the heads of various characters, and two in particular. Undoubtedly, certain scenes unfolded like a movie, and many characters were used as viewpoint characters without obvious limitation. But perhaps, as others in the group opined, it was a limited point-of-view with some omniscient bits thrown in?

Whatever the answer, we all felt the need to express our opinion -- qualified or otherwise -- as to whether or not the viewpoint was working. Did we compare it with what we preferred as readers or writers? Or maybe with what we read in textbooks or learnt in class? How does the viewpoint chosen affect our understanding, or our experience of the story?

At the end of the day, it probably doesn't matter if it's overly intimate omniscient or intimate with some omniscient sections -- or a hybrid of the two. At the end of the day, what matters is whether or not it works for the reader. Writer control and point-of-view are issues mulled over by writers, while readers get on with appreciating the story for itself.

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