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?