Thursday, June 25, 2015


I've been musing a little on POV in fiction. An important note; Orson Scott-Card has an excellent book called "Characters and Viewpoint" that covers this subject in more depth than I possibly can.

I did writing all backwards, of course. Wrote short stories. Wrote a novel. Shopped the novel. Then sat down and spent another ten years writing fanfic and, well, actually learning something.

I was conscious over my Sailor Moon fanfic of playing around with POV. And not just the silly exercises, like opening a chapter in film script format. In almost all of my writing (like the majority of fiction, really), I've been using third-person limited as POV. This means, simply, that one character is chosen as the "eyes" of a scene. Unlike third-person omniscient, third-person limited can only "hear" the thoughts of the viewpoint character. It also sees through their eyes; what happens out of their view is not perceived by the narration. You can't get away with a "Bob didn't know that just down the hall..." (And you certainly can't get away with any "Dear Reader"'s!)

Out of this comes the mirror gimmick; since the narrative "camera" is mounted inside this implicit narrator, your hero is unable to describe himself. The narrative can "see" other characters, but not the protagonist. Cue generations of writers manipulating their protagonist to stroll near a handy mirror somewhere in the opening page.

Things really get interesting when you move into deep immersion. Scott-Card talks about degrees of immersion; it is my experience that you can with care move in and out of the depth with the same character. Something I attempted to do in my novel but lacked the skill to, well really the skill to understand what I was trying to do.

At the shallow end of the immersion pool the POV character is simply a camera. At the deeper levels, they interpret a scene. At the deepest levels, they filter what they perceive through their own expectations.


Neutral: "Jack turned. Fred had picked up his rifle and moved to the front of the party."

Immersive: "Jack turned. Fred had retrieved his M16A2 and now, holding it at port arms, he took point."  Or; "Jack turned. Fred picked up the gun that had been lying there and now moved to the front of the group." One of these two characters knows weapons and military usage. The other does not.

Deep immersion: "Jack turned. That REMF Fred had his '16 again, and diddy-bopped his way front as if the Colonel was actually going to let him take point." Or if you like a similarly opinionated person with a different background; "Jack turned. Fred had some kind of damned gun now, and he was waving it around in a way that was going to have someone's eye out before long. Or worse."

In all of these cases, it is assumed the external scene was the same. What is happening is that the background of the implied narrator -- the third-person POV -- is providing the knowledge to interpret what is seen, and the biases to color that interpretation.

Indeed -- in deep immersion, it is accepted that the narrator can and does lie.

I had one of these that I was rather proud of, in an episode with a "hopping vampire" out of Chinese mythology;

"Vampire? You mean, 'I never drink...blood?'" Serena said the last in a drop-dead perfect Bela Lugosi accent.

"What's that?" Raye was distracted. "Have you got something in your mouth?"

So who is the POV character here, and which version of events is closer to the truth? (I cheat a little -- in the actual scene, interior thoughts were given for Serena before this moment, underlining for the reader who they are "being" in that particular scene.)

Indeed, that is part of the suite of necessary tricks. I spent a while switching POV characters, going through the same (ongoing) events from multiple points of view. And I made it a point to name the narrative character within the first paragraph, and put interior monologue for them within the first page.

In my ongoing Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic, however, I'm finding new wrinkles to this. And new difficulties. One thing I'm trying to learn to do is to filter language choice into the narrative voice. This could easily go too far. The narration needs to have a sort of distance in order to fade into invisibility. The sense you want the reader to carry away is that you are watching a segment of film in which one protagonist is generally centered and most of the shots are over their shoulder. So doing the scene in dialect is generally a mistake.

Thing is, I have always disliked quoted thoughts. The artifice of doing direct thoughts in italics, with punctuation and attribution as if it is spoken dialog, bothers me. It yanks me out of the story. My feeling is that unless someone is rehearsing a speech to themselves or doing something similar they don't think in complete sentences. They don't even think verbally. I think it comes closer to simulating the kind of mental chatter most of us experience to simply color the narration with some of the speech patterns and word choices of the POV character.

The downside is that this makes those moments of direct quoted interior thought more arbitrarily picked out when you do feel it necessary to treat them as dialog.

I think I sensed that as far back as "Shirato," when I specifically framed the verbalized thoughts with a "Mie thought carefully" or "Mie said to herself." Very much, my protagonist was consciously verbalizing her conclusions at these moments -- as opposed to the stream of thought that occurs through the bulk of the narrative.

Now I'm having a different suite of problems. I'm stuck in Prague now, deep under Hrad Houska chasing after the secrets of alchemists working for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Except that Colonel "Jack" O'Neill has too distinct a speaking style to be allowed to color his POV segments more than a little, and he in addition has too little of the archaeological knowledge to properly describe what he is looking at. Whereas Daniel Jackson and Lara Croft are too similar in their understanding -- thus too likely to turn into mere windows for info-dump.

I need to find ways to let each color the narrative. I need to find more "hooks," particular interpretations each can carry to make their individual POV's distinct and interesting.

One related trick I've been trying to be very conscious of is how people are named. This carries through in the dialog; each character is called different things depending on who is talking about them. Which was of course true in the original television series. Daniel Jackson tends to be casual, first-naming most of the people around him. Teal'c is the most formal. It seems as if Teal'c either gives full names or appends rank, but the truth is that how he names someone is indicative also of how close he feels to them. Thus it may be "Daniel Jackson" and "Major Carter" but it will always be "O'Neill" with him.

(I have him calling her "Lady Croft" because the discussion of her being a Peer piqued his interest in Earth cultures and he is basically trying out the idea of special names for nobility. And he likes formations that approach iambic pentameter; a habit some fanfic writers underline by running names together in his quoted dialog; "Danieljackson," for instance.)

Thus I have a pretty good indication of who is the POV character by what names the narrative uses for the other characters. (Helped no little by the fact that SG1 are still largely strangers to Lara Croft, thus she tended towards "The big guy" or "the military hard-case" in previous chapters.)

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