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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Most Invested POV (Mailbox)

How can I write from the point of view of an uninvested character? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Excuses to show you that my English major was not completely wasted are more than welcome!] 

TMC asks:

So here is my writing dilemma.

The protagonist is the person who drives the story. The POV should always belong to the person with the most invested in the scene.

Currently the only character with a POV I'm comfortable writing is not the person who's driving the story and is not the one most invested in what's going on.

This means that whatever I write, she's going to 'feel' like a passive observer.

The other three people in the scene cannot, for various reasons, become POV characters, even though one of them is driving the story and is the most invested in what's going on. And this part of the story has to happen.

My Reply:

I had some formative late teen years when The Movie Channel underwent its post-Viacom rebranding (in 1988), and blasted its acronym two or three times per commercial break during the "Weekend Multiplex" when it played what was, for a late 80's/early 90's kid who hadn't yet convinced his BEST friend to try Dungeons and Dragons, much better than trying to walk to the Swap Meet six miles away to check out the only place with Nintendo games in the whole damned valley. (Santa Clarita Valley back in the day was NOT a happening place.) I don't even think they actually said or spelled out The Movie Channel at that point. It was just TMC. And now....


There's a lot to unpack here, TMC, but before we throw some Supernatural on the big screen, order some pizza, and begin the unpacking party in earnest, let's clear up at least one misconception. Because most Americans (who would read this blog, anyway) and 75% of well-read anglophones elsewhere on Earth are already thinking that Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby is the checkmate to this whole thing.

He isn't. At least not exactly. At least not in the way most people first offer him up.

So the first thing we have to do is talk about the difference between a focalizer and a narrator. The narrator is the character telling the story. That "character" might be omniscient, limited, or one or more of the characters inhabiting the story. The FOCALIZER is the perspective through which the story is told. So even though 1984 is written as an omnicient narrator, WINSTON is the focalizer. Usually, in a first (or second) person narrative, they are the same thing.

Not always, though. Once in a while you get a narrator clearly telling a story about SOMEONE ELSE. Gatsby is such a story. It's far from the only one, but is one of the best well-known (because of its position in American Literature education standards) as an example where the narrator is not the main character throughout the entire work.

Fitzgerald is a lot of things, and probably Americans need to get him off that fucking pedestal and talk about a few of them (his treatment of Zelda for example), but a shitty writer was not one of them. He was ABSOLUTELY, consciously playing with the relationship between focalizer and narrator at a time when that sort of literary play was at the peak of its avant-garde status. You see a very analogous floating narrative in Mrs. Dalloway (published the same year) where the narrative is third person, but the focalizer keeps jumping around and creating almost a dreamlike quality. And you see the same sort of Focalizer v. Narrator in the stream-of-consciousness of Ulysses (published three years earlier) as the focalization jumps around while the narration remains with Leopold Bloom.

So yeah, Fitzgerald is fucking with his readers. He's breaking those conventions. The 20s were a time where the general take on society was that the "rules" from the 19th century turned out to suck, and artists were gleefully smashing them with hammers. Fitzgerald is no exception, and not particularly "experimental" among his peers. He's having a grand old time playing with the narrative conventions of the generation before just like a lot of other writers of the time: "Focalizer....just kidding, narrator. Or AM I??? Focalizer!  Psyche....gotcha again, just narrator."

And in the end, Fitzgerald "gets" us one last time because even though he has definitely shifted the focalizer status to Gatsby when he does things like tell the backstory through the latter's point of view, it ends up being Nick who is the character capable of a narrative arc and change (an essential quality for a main character). Gatsby doesn't change. Gatsby is just killed. In fact, Gatsby is so inimical to change (that doesn't benefit his transformation from James Gatz) that he wants to preserve a moment with Daisy forever and literally CAUSES the climactic conflict by demanding that there be no change. Gatsby never stops being an analogue for "The American Dream." It is NICK who changes, who realizes that the whole "fast life" covers a moral emptiness and learns a valuable lesson to become a better blah blah blah.

Not Gatsby. Nick.
Here's to bitter disillusionment that I never actually personally deal with.
That wasn't a massive non-sequitur so that your ol' blogger pal Chris could relive some of his glory days of literary analysis. (*flexes muscles like he's throwing a football*) I mean it was, but that's not JUST what it was. We're gonna use this as we unpack this question.

What we're looking at here is a question at the intersection of Character and Point of View and a great clapback to last week when I pointed out that all the Elements of Craft kind of blend together. In general, you do not want a character who wants nothing. They become boring, flat and uninteresting. They have to want something (anything!), even if it is simply a glass of water. (Readers must also know what the stakes are or they won't care.)

In old-timey fiction it was fine to have stock characters that kind of fulfilled an archetype niche and walked around inside a plot-based story. These days you can't get away with that stuff. The hegemony of character has dominated the entire world of literature (including genre). You can no longer just have a compelling mystery. Your detective has to be a zombie or an addict super-doctor or something else.

Really you don't want motivationless characters ever: if minor characters who want nothing populate the edges of your story, it can make things feel railroaded. The world will feel populated by stock characters and only the main characters will feel like they have ambitions––the literary equivalent of a picture with only the subject in color and the rest in black and white. (Possibly interesting if done well and intentionally, but otherwise.....) For a major character to have no wants means your narrative arc is "plot driven" instead of "character driven" and that can be kind of a no-no in modern fiction.

But here we are. Other characters can't carry the POV. So let's fucking do this thing!

1- This "rule" is like all other "rules" of writing.

Meaning, chuck it in the fuckit bucket if it's not working FOR you. I once read that a famous author saidd, "Don't write about kids, alcoholics, or politics," and I was like, "What, were you fucking sick the days they taught 19th century European literature in Literature class? Have you EVER read a Y.A. novel? Like EVER???? What the literal hell kind of advice is that?"

Much like Fitzgerald, you can bend, break, and eventually dance a peppy Irish Riverdance jig on this rule if you want to. The only real "rule" in writing is what you can earn and then get away with. Let them tell you you "can't" do it while young writers crawl over each other to beg you for your secret ingredient to success.

Laugh at their bemusement. Drink their tears. Delight in their screams of anguish to an uncaring god.

Is it a little unusual for a work with high ambition to follow a character who doesn't want anything for a while? Yep. You've got your work cut out for you. But there's no reason to think it can't be done.

In the great words of Westley when Buttercup said they would not survive: "Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has!"

2- POV and Focalizer

As I just wrote, you can have a focalizer not be the POV character. You don't even have to do triple reversal bait and switches like Fitzgerald was doing. ("If you put the focalizer as the main character, then I can clearly not choose the Point of View in front of ME!"  Sorry....still on The Princess Bride here.)

This isn't common or frequent, but it isn't unheard of or anything. I myself have a story (as yet unpublished) where a "bardish" storyteller character is the point of view character telling the story of a more outgoing "warrior" type who is the main character. (They are both aspects of me, and even as I write this, I realize that it has a lot to do with the fact that I think of myself as more the narrator, and when I am doing cool things that I actually admire and think are worthwhile, it's almost like I'm watching myself do them and it's not really me.)

Perhaps the most famous example of this (that ISN'T on 90% of high school curriculums) is Watson. He dutifully chronicles the stories of Sherlock Holmes and only occasionally do we know anything about his own wants and needs, other than perhaps to understand how the heck Holmes figured something out. Modern reinterpretations have fleshed him out a bit as an adrenaline junkie or having a romantic interest that conflicts with helping Holmes, but very little of any of that can be found in the Doyle stories. Now, detective fiction might not be considered "literary," but Sherlock Holmes is the only character other than Arthur of the Britons to have their own literary journal, and Holmes stories have thousands of adaptations and derivations. So....maaaaaaaybe suggesting that there's "never" a good POV character who just kind of passively reports what the focalizer is doing is just a wee bit of that "high art" elitist, gatekeeping snobbery.

Having a point of view character who cares about nothing and NO focalizer might be a difficult choice. (Purely objective narratives where no character is given sympathy or primacy are unusual but not unheard of.) But you can have your POV character focus on your focalizer and the "sin" of having her not carry much of her own motivation will be smoothed over. Or maybe THAT can be the thing she wants. To tell the focalizer's story as clearly as possible.

3-It's not the whole work.

Characters who could NOT carry the narrative can often carry chunks of it, especially when needed. It's one of the reasons you get more traditional narratives in novels, but all KINDS of "play" in short stories. Those shorter chunks of investment mean readers will put up with more unconventional shit.

No one would read an entire book from Big Wig's point of view, but Watership Down is arguably a much better story for the fact that it sometimes leaves Hazel and goes into other focalizers for a chapter. No one will slog through five hundred pages to find out that the point of view is from a character who has no narrative tension, but if the central character's tensions are still being carried while this other character merely picks up the job of basically being a "recorder" for a few pages, it'll be fine.

You might be overthinking this. Twenty pages is not the same as two hundred.

4- Authors essentially do this all the time.

A lot of authors have fun doing EXACTLY this. You might run up against some of those "rules," but if you earn it, I wouldn't worry about them too much. Think of how fun it is to occasionally have a situational comedy from one of the side character's points of view. Those characters are often flat, cliché or "one-trick-ponies" who are hardly good examples of literary characters with arcs, but for a single episode, it's kind of fun to see how Smithers or Willy or The Janitor or The Todd sees the world and that they've got more to them than they let the world see.

Readers find this DELIGHTFUL. It's like this whole different perspective for a few pages. It's a treat to see the world from another's view especially if there's something they notice from that perspective that they would never have noticed from just the original.

Like standing on a desk. O captain! my Captain!

5- GIVE her motivation. 

Of course, you could side step all of this if you thought about what she DOES want. Even if it's just a glass of water.

She doesn't have to share the motivation of the focalizer character in order for her narrative arc to be interesting. She can have her own wants, needs, goals. Maybe she wants to impress someone back home. Maybe she wants to be violent. Or maybe she doesn't, but we don't know that it's all an act until we're up in her head and seeing how she pretends to be a bad ass to cover for being terrified. Or maybe she really wants a tiny house with a white picket fence and where the hell did it all go so wrong?

Maybe, and this is a little meta but I could see it working, she wants everyone to know JUST HOW FUCKING MUCH SHE DOES. NOT. CARE. And that becomes its own driving pulse for that character. I wouldn't read a whole novel of that, but for a few pages, the irony of a character who was passionate about being blasé could be fucking hilarious!

Mostly I'm just going to keep hammering #1, though. If you've been around a while (and you have, The Movie Chann TMC), you know I really hate saying "if you have a good reason" because everyone thinks their reason is spectacular. Instead I say Earn It.

If you earn it, the only "rules" are what you can get away with, and while a lot of process and craft advice has some really good basis for being advice in the first place, some of it still needs to be punched in the face. And as you move even further away and leave behind good, solid, oft-agreed-upon process and craft advice and go out into the world of narrative arcs and "what makes for a good story," you're deep into the territory where A) there are LOTS of exceptions because no one tells writers what they can't fucking do, B) they're really more like helpful suggestions to keep things a bit easier for beginners, and perhaps most importantly, C) some of the best stories you can think of took some "rule" or another and fucked with it––and that's exactly the reason they were so remarkable.

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