Monday, December 5, 2011

POV: The Ignition Timing of the Writing World

I should preface this entry by saying I know very little about auto repair or automotive engineering.  I probably could, say, change my oil or a possibly a spark plug, but beyond that, I'm at a loss.  If something's wrong with the car, I'll open the hood and look inside, by mostly that's to make sure that the engine is still there or there isn't a family of squirrels nesting inside or some other "THIS IS OBVIOUSLY THE PROBLEM" sort of situation. 

I say this so you all can understand, when I'm talking about ignition timing, I don't really know what it is.  Even though I looked it up and everything.  But that's kind of the point: this is technical stuff that is going on under the hood of the car that I just don't get, and neither do most people who drive their cars.   And they don't want to know, really.  They want their cars to work, and they care when it doesn't.  And sometimes they can even tell when something isn't quite right, but they don't know what... and the what is the ignition timing is off.  Possibly in minute ways that a layman like me can't quite put our fingers on, but we know something isn't right with how the engine is running.  But mechanics are probably very aware of it.  (Maybe.  It might be that most mechanics couldn't care less about it either.)

Point-of-view in writing, I think, is kind of like that.  Writers talk about POV a lot.  They worry about it, sweat over it, freak out if someone gets it wrong, etc. etc.  But I bet it's something readers who aren't writers don't notice all that much.

I mean, I'm sure the average reader knows and notices the difference between first-person and third-person POVs.  (Or in rare cases, second-person.)  But do they really notice-- or care all that much-- between third-person limited, multi-third-person-limited, or third-person-omniscient?  Do they notice when those POVs get violated?  And what is a POV violation, anyway?  I've had some critique readers ping me for that just when the POV character has too much insight on someone else's emotional state.  (Is there really any difference in POV from "Jane was angry" and "Jane's face was full of anger", for example?  The latter, of course, would be strange in Jane's POV, but either would work fine in, say, John's POV.)

At the same time, I do think readers notice something is wrong when your POV is done poorly, or breaks established rules.  Take for example, the Harry Potter books.  For the most part, the books are in limited third-person POV, namely Harry's.  There are a few times, notably in the early chapters of many of the books, where the POV is intentionally focused on someone else.  (My personal favorite being the Muggle Prime Minister in Half-Blood Prince.  I think it's a damn shame the movie version didn't have that scene, possibly with Hugh Grant reprising his role from Love, Actually.)    But there is one chapter-- the first Quidditch game in Sorcerer's Stone-- where the POV hopskotches between Harry and Hermione, and I've heard from plenty of readers that they knew something was off there but couldn't quite figure out what.

I'm, personally, a big believer in multi-third-person-limited.  I like having a broad canvas of whose head I can get into-- protagonist, villain, sidekick, underling.  Only in Maradaine Constabulary did I intentionally limit myself, only allowing the POV to be Katrine or Minox.  Though I didn't force that into a structure, always alternating each chapter or such.  I don't think I could have pulled that off.

Speaking of, I'm in the process of editing and re-writing that, so back down to the word mines I go.


leigh said...

Oh yes, I know the "whose side am I going to tell?" conundrum quite well. On my first draft I was absolutely dead-set on telling the story from my two mains' POVs, but found I needed a 3rd POV but didn't want to integrate another character... so, as you probably recall, the way I attempted to get that 3rd POV was from recording conversations (implying that my villain was listening in), and on occasion having one of my two mains discretely observe an important interaction between supporting characters.

But I've relented and went ahead and added a few scenes here and there from the villain's POV, though I've kept the covertly recorded conversations for plot purposes. I'm still hemming and hawing about just how much I want the reader to be inside his head, though, in part because I don't want to add too much more volume. Moving on to your example: JK Rowling usually tells her story from her protagonists' POV, but in the later books she tells it from the antagonists' POV more and more as the story evolves. However, if I recall correctly, the reader it more aware of the protagonists' emotional states and more attuned to what they're thinking than the antagonists, presumably because she wants us to identify with the good guys and feel emotionally distant from the bad guys... at least until the very, very end where one of the bad guys is revealed to be good. Perhaps revealing emotions -- and fears and insecurities in particular -- is what makes the reader identify with the hero.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I do like getting in the antagonist's head-- that was a key part of Thorn, I thought, that everyone's headspace was open game.

Part of why I limited myself in Maradaine Constabulary was that it's at least, in part, a mystery. Going in the villain's head would have ruined the mystery.