Looking at viewpoint with Sarah Bower
Stories are precious possessions. We fight hard for them. We all know the indignation of another person cutting in to give their version of a story we are telling; when they do this, they trespass on our souls.
Fictional characters are no different. Every one of them is clamouring to tell his or her story, battling it out in the mind of the writer to be given the privilege of a viewpoint. When the novelist performs the work of characterisation thoroughly and properly, every character she imagines, however minor a role they have to play, will be fully rounded, with a deep backstory, a rich hinterland that may never appear in the finished book but is always there between the lines, the life-giving secret shared between author and character. Every one of these characters will therefore be pressing you for a voice; every one has a story to tell.
The way in which you manage these competing claims will, perhaps, determine the course of your novel more than any other single thing. It affects, obviously, the development of and interplay between characters, the unfolding of your plot, what readers know, are left guessing, are lied to about, and the voice of the novel – the forms of words, the images, the cadences of its storytelling.
So how do you decide which of your characters will be given a point of view, which of them is going to work hardest alongside you to bring the novel to life? Kazuo Ishiguro, it is said, actually goes through a process of ‘interviewing’ characters to determine which of them is best suited for the job!
There is no single right way to arrive at a decision. As with most aspects of creativity, it is perhaps best to begin with your intuition. Whose story does it feel like? Which character’s voice is most often in your head when you are thinking about and planning your novel? Even for writers whose ideas come to them plot first, as a series of dramatic situations or confrontations, character must follow close on the heels of the plot because, without characters, you have no-one to enact the plot. So, there is much to be said for beginning by listening to the voices in your head and focusing on those which speak loudest.
As with every aspect of constructing a novel, however, the intuitive work must be given form and reinforced by reasoning based on technical understanding. You must understand what narrative viewpoint is and how to deploy it if the voices of your viewpoint characters are to be authentic and intelligible to readers. Narrative viewpoint refers to the point (or points) of view through which the novelist tells her story. It determines through whose eyes (and other senses, of course) the reader perceives the action and whose voices will be given a privileged hearing. This may, and most likely will, also suggest whose lies the author would like readers to believe.
I began this discussion by talking about the viewpoints of characters inside the novel because this is the commonest mode of narration in contemporary mainstream fiction. The convention is that readers follow certain characters, but the characters are unaware of the readers’ presence. They act out the part of their lives examined in the novel as if they are unaware of their status as fictional constructs in an artificial, imagined world.
This was not, however, always the case. The convention of the early modern novel was for the author to make his role in the story explicit. Thackeray, for example, subtitles Vanity Fair ‘a novel without a hero’; by imposing his own acute and merciless vision between his characters and his readers, he makes sure the latter see the former warts and all; he gives them no voice with which to big themselves up to readers. Throughout the novel, the reader is aware of the author himself mediating the text and manipulating the characters; this is more like puppetry than CGI. This is an authorial viewpoint, producing a novel which is very much about the author telling us a story and drawing the moral he intends.
A form also popular at the same period, and which has remained so in contemporary fiction, is the fake memoir. Robinson Crusoe is an example of this, as is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. These are novels which are presented as the truth – in Boyd’s case as a diary, in Defoe’s as travelogue-cum-adventure, but because their narrators are fictional, ergo the stories they tell are also fiction. Crusoe and Logan Mountstuart are what we call virtual authors, who stand between the ‘real’ author and the rest of the characters in the novel, who have no viewpoint. This kind of novel is almost always narrated, for obvious reasons, in a close first person voice. The entire action is filtered through the virtual author and spun according to his agenda. So, although both the novels I have given as examples contain elements of historical fact, the reader cannot necessarily trust it because it is shown through the eyes of a self-promoting, and therefore unreliable, narrator.
As I have said, however, the commonest mode of narration in mainstream fiction is that which uses the viewpoints of one or more principal characters. Clearly, viewpoint characters must be major players in your story, otherwise their knowledge of what is going on will be too little for them to contribute to readers’ understanding. Principal characters are also the ones most likely to engage readers emotions and therefore the ones whose voices readers will most want to hear. If you choose multiple viewpoints, try to avoid using too many as this can become confusing. As a rough rule of thumb, a maximum of six different viewpoints is probably the most it is wise to use in a novel of average length. When using multiple viewpoints, it is also a good idea to try to establish some pattern in the way you deploy them, as this is another way of helping readers navigate your text. You could, for example, always use them in the same order, associate certain voices with certain locations, or give them a chronological relationship so that each narrates aspects of the story from fixed, but different, points in its chronology. This latter can be either cyclical or linear, where the story is handed on from one to the next like a baton in a relay.
Many beginning novelists start out believing multiple viewpoints offer the best way of telling their story because they worry about the handling of information. If I only have a single viewpoint, how can I tell the reader things that character doesn’t know? It is, of course, a valid question, but what I ask my students is this: how do you find your way through life? How do you assimilate knowledge or an understanding of other people? The fact of the matter is, the single, close viewpoint is actually the easiest to do because it is the most like life. All of us go through our lives with a single viewpoint. We have no idea what is going on in other people’s heads other than what we can intuit from observing them. Our readers are the same so, if your single viewpoint character tells them her boyfriend says he’s going fishing but can’t look her in the eye and clears his throat a lot, they will know he’s lying and is probably off for a hot weekend with the femme fatale.
Viewpoint characters who have limited information, or choose to lie about what they do know, are unreliable. The unreliable narrator is one of the key tools at the disposal of the novelist who chooses to use character viewpoints or a virtual author figure. Unreliable narrators do not tell the truth, either because they do not know it due to their limited viewpoint or because they do not wish to share it with readers. If, for example, you are writing a murder mystery and choose to narrate it from the viewpoint of the murderer, the murderer may not want to give himself away so you and he will both have a vested interest in keeping his action quiet until investigation forces it into the open. Of course, your murderer may be dying to confess, in which case you have a novel which uses a reverse chronology (like Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even though the author classifies this book as journalism rather than fiction). We know who the victim is and who killed him, and his motives are the mystery the book explores.
I have referred already to the close viewpoint. Having decided on your viewpoint characters, you must also decide how close you want to bring readers to them. Do you want readers to participate in the fictional world from right inside the heads of the viewpoint characters, giving them a visceral experience of those characters’ physical feelings as well as their thoughts and emotions, or do you prefer to keep your distance? The former has obvious advantages in the immediacy with which it can engage readers and bring the fictional world to life. The latter, on the other hand, can be a useful hybridisation of character and narrator/author viewpoint. The view of the fictional world is confined to a limited cast of characters, but they still keep their innermost feelings secret. We might see, for example, that Jane is wearing new Louboutin shoes, but we will not necessarily be aware that she has blisters as a result. Not only can this help with the management of information, but also helps the author exercise control over the atmosphere of the novel. In Never Let Me Go, for example, Ishiguro always maintains a distance between his characters and the reader, and this contributes to the detached, somewhat glacial atmosphere of the novel, an atmosphere which is needed to reinforce its theme.
Finally, keep in mind that you can mix and match different degrees of closeness, much as the cinematographer zooms in and out from wide angle or cherrypicker to close up. There may be times when it suits you to keep readers and characters apart and times when you want to make the reader feel at one with a character, slower moving passages where you want a wide angle, descriptive approach contrasted with tense sequences in which you want us to feel the protagonist’s racing heart.
I have to end with an apology. Writers must, of course, read widely, but the more they learn about their craft, the more critical they become as readers. Once you start reading for viewpoint, which is virtually unnoticeable unless done badly, your days of reading for enjoyment are numbered! Sorry.