This may well be my last post for a while. I’ve got a busy week planned.
This weekend on Plotmonkeys, Julie Leto tackled the topic of POV:
There are few subjects in the craft of writing that are more perplexing to writers than Point of View. Most simply defined, point of view is the perspective through which a story is being told. Metaphorically, it’s the camera lens through which the reader experiences a story. Except in the oral tradition, telling a story is not the author’s job…showing the story is.
And to show, you need Point of View.
Thankfully, since I don’t have time to get Indignant!Diana right now, the comments section of that post avoided the whole “I never read a book in First Person POV” and “My writing teacher told me that only beginning/unskilled/hack writers use First Person POV” so popular in online discussions about POV. (I wish the same could be said for the discussion on a certain writing list I’m on now. It floors me that people are that ignorant about literature. Faulkner, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Melville, Twain, Poe: all the greats have used FPPOV.) But since, in the discussion, Julie did bring up my books, I wanted to expand a little bit more on one of the things she said:
“Some of my favorite books, by the way, are told in first person. Julie Kenner’s DEMON-HUNTING SOCCER MOM series, for one. Diana Peterfreund’s SECRET SOCIETY GIRL series for another. But these aren’t romances. They’re women’s fiction. The focus is on the women and their experience, so no one really cares what the other characters are thinking, which is why the limited first person point of view works so expertly.”
Secret Society Girl was the first book I ever wrote in singular, FPPOV. To date, SSG, UTR, and now, ROS(B) are the only books I’ve written in that format. I’d written short stories in FPPOV up to that point, but nothing else. And though I never say never, I think that writing in this format is one of my strengths, so you’re more likely to see it out of me than otherwise.
However, it is a point of view that comes with its own problems. I disagree with Julie that readers don’t care what the other characters think (though I understand what she’s driving at, regarding “leads” vs. “secondaries”). I think they care just as much as in any other book. Unlike a romance, though, where you have two leads, in a book like Secret Society Girl and its follow ups, any character not named Amy is a secondary character. You may care what they think, they may be a fascinating, multi-faceted, complex character with an important role to play, but they aren’t a lead, and they don’t get a voice. Therefore, the trick is to get across what they are thinking through Amy’s eyes.
This becomes difficult when Amy a) has no clue what they are thinking and/or b) when Amy has grasped the totally wrong end of the stick regarding what they are thinking. Which occasionally happens.
In general, Amy is a pretty reliable narrator. Because of the confessional style of the books, she doesn’t lie to the reader about what’s going on. She may lie to the other characters (and they may lie to her) but when she says something is happening, or that she feels a certain way about something, she’ll tell the reader. (There are other types of narrators, called “unreliable” who I find particularly fascinating, but have only ever written short stories using this. My favorite unreliable narrators are Charley from Flowers for Algernon and Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense. Sailor Boy’s favorite unreliable narrator is Verbal from The Usual Suspects.)
However, all narrators are to some extent unreliable, because you can only see what they see, only feel what they feel. The simplest way to describe this is to use as an example the time Amy is stuffed into a coffin at her Rose & Grave initiation. From inside the coffin, she has no idea what is happening to her. If we were in, say, Poe’s perspective, that scene would play very differently, since he doesn’t have a biased view of what is happening to her. But we’re not. We’re in Amy’s head, first last and always. It makes some scenes very interesting.
For instance, there’s a scene in Under the Rose where Amy has no clue what a conversation is really about and still draws a conclusion from it — one that colors her perception about a character almost until the end of the book. Now, this scene could be written in first or third point of view and still have the same effect. I could even later go into another character’s head, one who did know what the conversation was about, and as long as I don’t write that character as actually thinking about the conversation, I could keep it a secret from the reader. (Unreliable I like, but characters who actively and teasingly keep secrets from the reader in the “but she promised herself she’d never think about that” kind of way drive me nuts. It’s only very rarely done well, such as in Laurie Halse Anderson’s masterful Speak.) However, I get to sidestep that problem just because we never see anything but Amy’s perspective.
The difficulty lies in trying to get information across to the reader that Amy herself doesn’t know or wouldn’t believe anyway. During revisions for Under the Rose with my editor, one of the scenes she wanted me to reexamine involved a secondary character’s motivation. It wasn’t what Amy thought it was, but Amy was so certain that her perception was correct (she’s awfully forceful, that girl), that we were concerned the reader wouldn’t grasp the fact that Amy was mistaken. I had to write the scene a few different ways before I found the perfect balance of making it clear to the reader what the secondary character was actually driving at while at the same time not making it seem like Amy was stupid for not picking up on it herself. Because every character has blind spots. In the end, the way the effect was accomplished was through a combination of carefully worded dialogue and body language. But it did give me fits!
One way to accomplish subverting Amy’s (or any character’s) narration when she’s being “unreliable” is through the same technique you use to make a reader have sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic character. No, not “Save the Cat.” You make another character have the same reaction. For instance, Amy thinks that George is the most beautiful man on campus. Now, maybe her taste is massively screwed up, and you just get the sense that George is gorgeous because you only hear about him from Amy. Maybe in real life, he looks like Lyle Lovett and Amy is just having a Julia Roberts moment. The way the reader knows that Amy isn’t just biased on this George issue is because the other characters occasionally remark upon how good looking George is as well.
The opposite of this case is Clarissa. At the beginning of SSG, Amy says Clarissa is a bitch. Nobody backs her up on this supposition. A lot of them actually seem to like Clarissa just fine. And in fact, at the start of UTR, Lydia, who is Amy’s best friend and will hate Clarissa in moral support for Amy alone, is confused when she finds out that Amy is dragging her to a party at Clarissa’s apartment. So there you see how Amy’s bias regarding Clarissa can not only color her friend’s opinions, but also the readers, and you need to have independent, non-biased sources, like, say, Malcolm, who can quietly subvert the opinion you’re getting from your narrator.
Today’s tip was brought to you by the number 16.