Point of view is something that can plague writers, but, if it is well handled, readers should not be unduly conscious of it.
Unless that’s rather the point. But more of that later.
Of course if the novel is a first person narrative, everything is very simple. The story has to be told rigidly and entirely through the eyes of the fictional narrator.
Think Jane Eyre. The reason we are utterly shocked – or at least we were the first time we read it or saw a film or tv adaptation – when Mr Mason objects with his this marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment is that we have only been sharing Jane’s perspective on life at Gateshead, at Lowood School, at Thornfield Hall. We only know what she thinks of Mr Rochester and we go along with her view that the mad woman in the attic is merely Grace Poole given to tantrums and nightmares.
For we are living Jane’s experience. We are inside her head alone.
Thus the advantages yet also the limitations of the first person narrator. Everyone else has to be described from the outside. There’s no and then Suzy Smith thought how objectionable Simon was or He began to be suspicious of her faithfulness. Of course there are ways around these limitations that I found I had to navigate when writing my second novel The Legacy of Mr Jarvis which is first person narrative, but I’ll save all that for another day.
So if the novel is a third person narrative, does it mean that every character mentioned has to be allowed their own point of view?
Or looking at it another way, should the reader get to know what every character in the novel is thinking?
Consider the last novel you read. How many heads were you allowed inside? And were you aware of which characters’ thoughts you were allowed to know and which were closed to you?
Jane Austen appears to allow her characters reveal themselves through their dialogue. We are not told what many of her characters are thinking – Miss Bates in Emma, Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion – but their speech either betrays them – Miss Bates, for example – or their actions and reactions do – often so subtly that it’s not until we read the novels for a second or third time that we pick up on early clues that were overlooked on first reading for plot alone.
I’ve been thinking about the point of view business, of how many characters’ heads I need to be inside, in writing my fourth novel.
Theoretically, it’s a third person narrative so I should have free rein.
In my third novel, Miller Street SW22, I ‘had access’ so to speak, to nearly all of my main characters – even though they were communicating few truths to each other. The ‘walk ons,’ the periphery characters who were there merely to serve a purpose rather than granted a full billing in their own right, kept their thoughts to themselves. I have no idea what they were thinking – they were merely described from the outside. A little like scenery. Useful props.
But the novel I am currently writing is making me think all over again about point of view.
And I find myself with a bit of a dilemma.
Currently, Lily Page, my protagonist and eponymous ‘heroine’ of The Odyssey of Lily Page, is my only viewpoint. And this is something I did not consciously decide upon, but, over half way through the novel, it suddenly occurred to me. We only know (so far, anyway!) what Lily is thinking – her thoughts and emotions are the only ones that are being conveyed to the reader. Which makes it, of course, closer to a first person narration.
And I am beginning to wonder whether this is a strength or a weakness of the novel. Should I divert from this and invite the reader into the minds of other characters? Hugh Murray, Stella Fox, Dorothy Page? (when you have ‘lived’ with your characters for a couple of years they begin to take on the reality of friends or relations whom you have been meaning to invite over for ages …)
Yet this would effect the development of the plot – seriously affect it.
Yes, the story could still be written with insight into the other characters’ minds, but it would mean starting again.
And since I did not consciously set out to see things purely through Lily’s eyes, but the narrative simply seemed to ask for it, I think I will stick with the viewpoint I have established.
The unreliable narrator has become a feature of the modern novel where a first person narration pulls in the reader to the protagonist’s views and thoughts – only for us to realise later on that this view could be flawed or intentionally deceptive. Sarah Walters brilliantly makes use of this device in The Little Stranger and in The Great Gatsby, Sam Carraway tends to gild his descriptions of Daisy and Tom Buchanan until near the end of the novel when he finally admits and observes the truth of it:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
So which do you prefer as a reader?
How do you want to experience the story? Through a multiplicity of viewpoints or a solo one, regardless of a first or third person narrative?
And if you are enjoying the novel, does it really matter to you anyway?
In the meantime, I will get back to my work in progress, The Odyssey of Lily Page and see if Lily’s sole viewpoint really is sufficient to sustain the novel!