Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Which end of the elephant?

Remember the old joke about the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant?

One said that an elephant was flat and wide and thin like the leaf of a big plant. Another said, "Oh, no, an elephant is tall and broad and rough, like the side of a hill." And the third laughed and said, "You're both wrong. An elephant is slender and round like a garden hose and really, really stinks."

It all comes down to point of view -- and where you're standing when you're viewing the world.

I'm not going to debate the virtues of first person versus third (but I will say I love writing first person). To me, good writing means that in a single scene, the point of view, regardless of the pronoun the author uses, is limited to one set of eyes, one nose, one pair of hands and one pair of ears -- and the brain that operates all of those.

A term that writers like to throw around is "deep POV." In non-writerese, that's deep point-of-view. That means the perspective is so tightly embedded that even in a third person, shifting POV book, you can instantly tell whose perspective you're in by the first sentence of the scene.

That hinges on one thing: every single person looks at the world just a little differently, and to nail that POV, a writer has to crawl inside that person's head and see the world from the character's shoes.

I'm not talking just about a person who sees her hair long and flowing down her own back (man, that would take the flexibility of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.) I'm talking about authenticity, about knowing only what that character would know and using mental imagery that only that character would use.

I thought about all this as I've been "reading" an audio book, whose title will remain nameless out of respect for the author and every author's job. It's first person, from the perspective of an adult recalling a summer when she was 12 years old. The imagery is fabulous and lush ... but I keep getting yanked out of the story by images that no 12-year-old would use, not even the well-read kid the character is. A kid, especially a kid in decades past, would just not know the terms or descriptions. Yes, I understand that the character is all grown up now and that this isn't a YA book. But when we remember things we did as kids, we tend to go back and bury ourselves in that perspective, recalling things as we actually saw them then. We have the eyes of a child again.

I wish I could pull an example or two out of the book, but it wouldn't be fair to the author for me to pan her book. Maybe I'm just too exacting. Maybe that author would read my books and say, "Gee, your characters' POV isn't all that authentic, either."

What difficulties do you have when you're trying to deepen your characters' POV? And what are your pet peeves when you're reading a book?


Mia said...

I love this post, Cynthia. I love a good story, but I especially love characters that are so real you see them, hear them. Erynn Mangum's character, Lauren Holbrook was one of those characters. Maybe I just related because I'm a random, chocoholic myself. But Laurie came across as so real to me. I thought Erynn Mangum did a fabulous job on Laurie's POV.

I sometimes (uh, a lot of times) struggle with making the POV in my own novels deep and personal. So far all my books have been in first person, which makes it easier for me, but it's still hard to nail that character's perspective. As for what I struggle with the most; a male character's POV. I'm not a guy, and do not think like a guy, so it's hard for me to make the character authentic. Any tips?

And (sheesh, long comment) my biggest pet peeve in books is pages upon pages of description, the character's thoughts, or backstory.

Cynthia Reese said...

Thanks, Mia!

When I'm doing male POVs, I just channel The Husband. If he wouldn't think it or say it, then my poor hapless boy-character better not utter it! :-) And when in doubt, I round up a few willing guys and ask them, "OK, if x happens and then y happens, what would be your z?"

And amen on the pages of backstory! Didn't know how I could get so irritated with backstory until this book -- if the backstory is that important, maybe the character is telling the wrong story from the wrong time of his life??

Mia said...

Thanks for the tip :) I'm not married, but I have 4 older brothers (and lived to tell about it! Just kidding, they're amazing ;)), so I do loosely shape some of my male characters after them. I may have to try running questions about my male characters past them... hadn't thought of that (oh, they're gonna love me! ;)).

BillRicksofSoperton said...

Walking around the elephant works in photography, too. Sometimes we need a glass floor to view the underside of the elephant. POV affects composition, lighting, perspective...

Cynthia Reese said...

Mia, most guys are just glad to be asked so that you'll "get it right" and won't make their literary counterparts all "girlie." :-)

Bill, where do you think I learned this?? Thanks for all that you've taught me about photography!

Linda G. said...

I love that elephant story--I remember being fascinated by it when I was a kid. It's the perfect illustration for a POV discussion. :)

These days, I mostly write in first person. Actually, I have to watch myself so I don't go TOO deep--I can get really introspective on behalf of my mc, and that can slow the pace if I'm not careful with it.

out of the wordwork said...

I love POV discussions!

I once thought that 3rd person was the only way I could write. Since I began writing YA, I've absolutely fallen in love with first person. I never thought I could be that fully imbedded in a character and I thought that it would limit the ability to tell the story only from one person's perspective. I thought wrong.

Now my problem is getting back into writing 3rd person. It's been so long and I found it so hard to grasp again. But I did enjoy going from the hero to heroine's POV again. You know I love me my hero POV's!

Cynthia Reese said...

Linda, so true! The perils of me giving into too much introspection!

And Nelsa, can I just say, "I tooooollllld you so," about first person?? OK, I won't, just because you're such a cool CP!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

It is really difficult to "see" through the eyes of your characters. We bring so much of ourselves to them.

But you're right, Cynthia, often I have been brought out of a novel by stopping and saying, "A nun, a mobster, a whatever wouldn't say that!

Dean Kootnz in BROTHER ODD played with that in having a priest be a former enforcer for the Maffia. Hearing a priest talk like a Brooklyn mobster was humorous. But Odd Thomas still talked like the fry cook who sees the dead that he's always been.

That's why I took some pains to explain up front my undead Texas Ranger had a Jesuit education, his educated sensibilities having made him a bad fit for the Rangers.

Have a productive mid-week, Roland

Cynthia Reese said...

Ah, Roland, you remind me that, with the proper motivation, characters can do ANYTHING! Thanks!


This is a great post, and does a fabulous job of explaining something that I often find nebulous--the differences in 3rd person point of view, from the omniscient, to the limited, to, as you describe it, the "deep." Seems like so much writing nowadays is 1st person, though--I'd love to see 3rd person make a comeback.

Chris said...

POV was something I struggled with for so long! Must have been all those third person omniscient books I read growing up.

I agree that it's really jarring to read a young character describe things like a 30-year-old. Writing in first person definitely helps me tighten the POV. Sometimes I test third person sentences by temporarily switching them to first. Keeps me, and my characters, honest.

Great blog!

Anonymous said...

You're right, sometimes I can tell from the start whose POV it is because the writer skillfully shaped each character's personality. My pet peeve is when that hasn't happened, and I don't know who's speaking or thinking until the character's name or other big hint is revealed.

Cynthia Reese said...

Samuel, I think it really depends on the genre. In romance, third person rules, while in women's fiction, first person dominates. I think the surge of interest in memoir may have helped shape the move to first person as well. Thanks for the compliments!

Chris, that's my trick for doing a good job with third person! Wow! Great minds think alike!

Medeia, too right how that grates on the nerves. It's a sign (at least to me) that the reader is seeing essentially only one POV. And thanks for the very sweet blog award!