Point of View in Fiction: Some Gleanings From the Whidbey Writers Workshop

In my previous post I wrote about my first semester with the Whidbey Writers Workshop, which is the MFA in creative writing program offered by the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  I’ve been writing on my own for a long time, but these last few months with the NILA program have deepened the way I come at my own work and the way I would encourage other writers to approach theirs.  On the level of technique, I’ve especially come to appreciate the importance of fictional point of view.

The point of view of a story really does affect everything, and we writers would do well to pay a lot of attention to this.  By point of view (POV) I am referring to what we learned in high school English about how the story is told:  first-person POV (“I woke up that morning and . . .”), third-person POV (“He woke up that morning and .  . .”) or much more rarely the second-person POV (“You woke up that morning and  . . .”).  The writer has to decide who the POV character(s) is/are, and the question that is routinely posed for this is, “Whose head are we going to get inside?”  When there is only one POV character in a story, the reader comes to know him or her very well, and this creates intimacy in the story.  The use of more POV characters usually cuts down on that intimacy, but it gives the writer more freedom to create a wide-ranging story.

The point of view decision has everything to do with the kind of story the author wants to write, whether it is a mystery, a psychological probing, a story of two sides in conflict (war, strained marriage, whatever), or anything else.  I bring this up because I used to think that doing a good job of POV was simply a matter of staying consistent—of not jumping inside Jane’s thoughts in the middle of a scene about Mike.  It is much more complex, and much richer, than that.  When it’s Mike’s scene, you not only stay inside his consciousness, you can deal with his body, his memory, his unexplainable feelings, his vision, his blind spots.  If you want to.  If it helps the story.  It’s a question of whether closeness or distance works best.

In my class on the craft of fiction, taught by Wayne Ude, our final project was a large final paper analyzing two works of fiction (one of them our own, interestingly enough) and examining the way the point of view affected—and was affected by—every other aspect of the story: characterization, setting, pacing, etc.  This is a little like asking how the blood affects and is affected by the other functions of the human body, that’s how deep and all-encompassing the connection is.  With my other class, the fiction workshop taught by Bruce Holland Rogers, I thought a lot about this as I was reading and critiquing the fiction manuscripts of my classmates (which I enjoyed very much, by the way).  The POV was my lens, and it affected everything I saw in the story.

The more you expand the POV question, the more intriguing it becomes.  Whole books have been written on this topic, but as a good beginning, I’ll recommend the point of view discussion in the textbook we used, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, eighth edition.  And here are a few works of fiction that serve as good examples:  Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral” is a wonderful example of first-person story-telling; the reader’s understanding grows as the short-sighted narrator’s understanding grows.  A terrific combination of first and third is Sándor Márai’s novel Embers, a favorite of mine.  And a beautiful example of third-person omniscient (in which the author can penetrate the mind of any character she wants) is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.  Omniscient story-telling is hard to do; with that much freedom, the author can quickly lose control of the story.  Patchett directs her story perfectly the whole way.

Next post, I’ll tell about a couple of very important things I learned from the fiction critiquing class at NILA—both in commenting on the work of others, and in listening to other people comment on mine.

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