There is always a ménage a trois when you’re reading: you, the author, and the character.
At least a threesome, though in sprawling epics the trio can morph into an immense, tribal, polygamous family.
You’re in Paris, or Pittsburgh, in bed, or at a café, holding the book (or your device) in your hand, your lips moving, or not, as your eyes scan the page. Even if you belong to a book club, you read alone. And unless he is James Patterson with a Santa’s workshop full of ghostwriting elves churning out thrillers for his insatiable fans, the author is alone, too, when he creates the characters, who, basically, don’t exist, except insofar as the author Frankensteins them into lurching life. Even if the character is a thinly veiled stand-in for the author himself—a neurotic but endearing nerd with a disastrous dating life, or a veteran adjusting to civilian life after the war that took his legs—the character is by default a chiasma.
But let us agree that the job of the fiction writer is to make us feel something for his imaginary friend, or for the evil twin whispering in his ear that he must do awful things. We can feel sympathy for the character, solicitude, grief for his loss, fervent hope for his success, or even morbid fascination, if the dude happens to be a serial killer.
If you’re a Venn diagram type, think of three nice round bubbles, each floating separately and safely in its own enclosed world, labeled “Reader,” “Author,” “Character”—and then think about how much the bubbles will overlap. It’s in that bleeding or overlap between the entities—choose your metaphor, or your ink color—that empathy lives.
Sometimes the author and the reader form their own band of brothers, watching the character coolly from afar, giggling or gaping at him, judging his foibles, watching him fumble. Sometimes the author shows you the world so completely from the character’s perspective that you pretty much forget the author is even there. It seems that you and the character are alone together at the empty diner after closing time, bathed in spotlights as in a Hopper painting. Of course you know that is not really the case, because no matter how much you are encouraged to “suspend your disbelief,” you are aware that a writer has constructed the tale. But your identification with the character is so complete that all three of you—author, character, reader—might as well be participating in a synchronized swimming routine, or perhaps you crawled directly into the hero’s head through the strange little portal on Floor 7 in Being John Malkovich.
Let’s say the subject is a nasty divorce. The author can pick a side—say, that of the beleaguered, betrayed wife (Nora Ephron’s Heartburn). If the major characters are the two warring spouses, the author can serve as a kind of mediator, giving equal time to both spouses’ versions of the story and inviting you to be impartial, or to witness the nuptial carnage in head-shaking wonderment. The author might choose a supposedly reliable arbiter to ensure fairness, the role taken by the divorce lawyer in Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses. Or the author might choose to let the poor kid the couple is fighting over own the story—to show the divorce through her perspective, even though she’s too young to understand what’s going on (Henry James’s What Maisie Knew). The choice of point of view, in talking about divorce, basically is the story, and if the fiction is successful, it will be neither a court docket full of facts nor an unfiltered screed of lament against the cheating spouse.There is always a ménage a trois when you’re reading: you, the author, and the character.
If the cast of the novel is large, your author can function as a kind of cheerful party planner, escorting you around to introduce you to the people she thinks you might find interesting, filling you with admiration for the breadth of her vision. She might provide you with a genealogy, so you can keep the characters straight. She might provide you with a historical timeline. Hilary Mantel gives you both a cast of characters and a chart about the evolution of the Tudors at the beginning of Wolf Hall. You admire Mantel for doing her homework. Still, you’re aware that no matter how assiduous the research, she doesn’t really know what Cromwell had for breakfast.
The author is an intermediary. He is a guide and translator—and that is true even (or, as we’ll later see, especially) when the story is being told in first person, or involves facts or historical events.
Point-of-view choices involve skillful manipulations in, and modulations of, your alliance with your characters. In fact, I argue that those manipulations are the very heart of fiction, more central and crucial than plot—that only fiction that challenges your allegiances to author or character ever fully succeeds. And while most of us, when we write, make choices about point of view automatically and instinctively, we can learn a great deal about both our goals and the best ways to achieve them by breaking down those choices, and looking carefully at our options.
We can hate or mistrust a character. A narrator can be anywhere from subtly to riotously unreliable. But we cannot hate or mistrust the author. If we hate the author, we hate the book. When the author ushers us to our seats, we trust him to not position us behind a huge concrete pole, where our view of the action is obscured. We don’t want to watch a rehearsal, either. We want the players to know their lines and be in costume. There is a huge amount of trust implicit in the contract between author and reader. We do not want to be promised insight into the human heart and instead be given snuff porn. We do not want to be promised a story that is, to use the adjective of the moment, “edgy,” and instead wind up in a Hallmark card.
You can think of point-of-view choices as stopping points along a spectrum or sliding scale:
Closeness . . . . . . . . . . . Distance
Empathy . . . . . . . . . . . . . Judgment
Internal . . . . . . . . . . . . External
Subjectivity . . . . . . . . . . Objectivity
Deciding about point of view requires an assessment about whether you’re moving toward your subject, or whether you’re moving away. Whether you’re going to encourage the reader to bathe in the character’s view of the world, or offer a complementary or even competing one.The author is an intermediary. He is a guide and translator—and that is true even when the story is being told in first person, or involves facts or historical events.
Here is why things get tricky. Of course a surefire way to school us in characters’ feelings is to allow us to gain access to their minds and souls—that is, after all, why we bother to read fiction rather than the newspaper. As Atticus Finch asserts in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much of this book is devoted to methods for achieving that identification with character. But the best route to empathy is not always immersion and closeness. Paradoxically, on some issues, if you get too close, it can be more off-putting than immersive. Sometimes you need to pull back for a wider view to really feel the desired impact. Not all distant, objective observations are necessarily cold and clinical, either. Sometimes they, too, can engender strong reactions.
To talk in cinematic terms for a minute, if you’re filming a romantic kiss, you don’t want to get so close to the smooching duo that you see the hair in their nostrils. You might build the mood better if you show the lights twinkling in the harbor behind them. But if you do the equivalent of one of those wildly circling crane shots with a suddenly swelling violin score, your audience may be snorting with derision about the cliché rather than sighing with gauzy, romantic satisfaction. It’s particularly difficult to get the point of view right with a sex scene, because such scenes almost by default turn the reader into a voyeur—even though the act in question is (at least most of the time) private, and titillation might not be the desired effect.
It’s also a situation where a writer can seem to be gloating about his own prowess. I use “his” here advisedly: see Norman Mailer or other writers of a certain swagger who are sometimes accused of uncomfortably celebrating their own irresistibility and talent for pleasing the ladies, rather than their protagonists’. Back to our Venn diagrams: the reader then objects that there isn’t enough separation between character and author, that the author is merely showing off or engaging in some kind of wish fulfillment, in which he becomes Austin Powersesque, a crude parody of machismo. (No, you aren’t a dweeb hunched over a laptop! You’re a man of action and mystery, Baby!)
Similarly, if you are trying to show the horrors of the battlefield, a close-up of one man’s howl as his leg explodes (perhaps in slow motion) might not be quite as effective as a wider shot of the battlefield, with thousands of bodies writhing or face-down in the mud—at least until that image becomes a cliché of “The Horror of Battle,” and makes us feel almost nothing, as clichés are wont to do. If you’re trying to show Catherine having finally gathered the courage to escape Heathcliff, walking alone over the moors in the middle of the night in torrential rain, miles from safety, it might be useful to give us a long shot of just how vast and cold those moors are.
Or it might not. The incontrovertible fact about point-of-view choices: they depend.
Look how wantonly Emily Bronté complicates the point of view of Wuthering Heights: she tells the story of Catherine and Heathcliff’s stormy romance not from either of the lovers’ points of view but from that of Lockwood, a nearby renter from cosmopolitan London, who got much of his story from Nelly, a local servant who has known Catherine since she was a tot—who, in turn, got some parts of her story from other servants and observers. Bronté actively keeps you on your toes, makes it difficult for you to trust the version of the story you’re getting at any given time, and, in fact, the novel is much less gothic than virtually all of the film versions. If you have stellar graphic design skills, try drawing the Venn diagram on that set of relationships.Paradoxically, on some issues, if you get too close, it can be more off-putting than immersive.
The effect of so many interpreters and translators is to make the writer seem to almost disappear. If you’re not careful, you can lose sight of the fact that Brontë is making Catherine and Heathcliff up. To make us feel that we’re getting different versions of events that actually happened is a kind of magic trick. Because they didn’t.
Slavery did, however. How to write about its gruesomeness, though, and root us in the horrors of the slave experience? You might choose to entrap us completely, without translation or mediation, in the shame and pain of a man in a chain gang forced to wear a bit in his mouth, like a horse, or locked in leg irons, in a box in the muddy ground, during a raging flood. Give us the full you are there immediacy. But then you risk making the reader feel lectured to, or even numb to the pain. That astonishing section about the chain gang in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, so full of lyrical empathy, comes very late in a novel that is pointedly set after the Civil War, and that offers us a series of very closely aligned third-person narratives showing how disparate characters cope with slavery’s legacy. The novel is about how we think and talk about the grief and rage, not solely about the horror of the experiences themselves. Temporal distance can be as important as physical distance in establishing authorial reliability and range. Morrison’s characters are richly drawn enough to feel real, but our bond is first and foremost with Morrison herself, with her insight and vision. The novel aims to be both deeply personal in scope and also to have enormous breadth—delivering a story that is, as the flap copy says, “as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby.”
And yet Cynthia Ozick, in her heart-wrenching short story “The Shawl,” pointedly does not pull back for that larger view. Rosa is on a Nazi death march to a concentration camp with her infant girl hidden at her breast, behind the eponymous shawl. She is cold, starving, her breasts dry; her daughter, Magda, sucks on the “magic shawl” that keeps her quiet and alive. We are trapped not only in Rosa’s point of view, her consciousness narrowing to that one desperate hope, for the safety of infant Magda, but on that secret corner of concealment. Again, we may sympathize with Rosa, but our bond is with Ozick, who trusts us to understand what a prayer shawl is to Jewish religion, thus the story’s metaphorical heft; and further to notice that she has crafted a story seven pages long that shows the full trauma of the loss of an individual life in the unimaginable scale of the camp’s barbarity by forcing total identification with a single character. If you want the big picture, you can go to the Holocaust Museum, or watch Shoah. The profundity of Ozick’s story is not just in what she makes us feel about Gestapo barbarity (How tragic is even one death among six million deaths, to the one who is dying, or worse yet, to the one losing her child?) but in what she asks you to consider about fiction’s relationship to experience: How much pain and grief can a short story contain?
We hear the author’s voice in a very different way in a book with a much quieter subject and a less dramatic sweep, like Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. We grow to love and care for this Irish family from Queens. They could be our neighbors, whether or not we happen to be Irish or from Queens. McDermott makes us a different kind of promise. She assures us that ordinary lives of quiet desperation matter. We feel grateful to her for encouraging us to move this close. We also appreciate a certain modesty, and selflessness, in the telling. Like a good therapist, McDermott seems to stand back, let the characters come to their own realizations.
Sometimes we get smacked between the eyes with insight as the characters do, concurrently—and sometimes we are encouraged to notice things that the characters don’t. We’ll talk about foreshadowing and other techniques that allow an author to simultaneously cleave to a character’s perception of events, while still signaling to his readers that they must look beyond what the character himself perceives. If the clues are too loud, they’re obtrusive. If they’re too quiet, we miss them, and don’t feel a shock of recognition when we get to the end; we feel annoyance or betrayal.
In a story like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” we hop from neighborhood pool to neighborhood pool in the leafy suburbs with Donald Westerhazy, who is drunk and seriously dysfunctional. We’ve got our wits about us, however, and part of the joy of the story is realizing before Westerhazy does that something is very wrong with his idyllic life. The clues mount. The pleasure is the skill with which Cheever unfolds the revelations. Go back to our Venn diagrams: in this case you and the author are mostly doing the breaststroke right alongside Westerhazy, but our circle and his circle don’t completely and totally overlap. It’s as if you have a kind of peripheral vision—you see outside of the story’s ostensible frame.
And then you reread. You savor. The clues mount differently, again. “Spoilers” make absolutely no difference in the appreciation of a good piece of fiction. In fact, the opposite: when you know what’s coming, you feel the tension even more acutely. I’ve reread Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” many times after I first learned that the characters are all hurtling toward their deaths, and I don’t feel tricked, or bored.
Alfred Hitchcock talked about the distinction between surprise and suspense, and why suspense is the more substantial achievement in film. If we see four men at a table playing poker and are bored until a bomb goes off, that’s surprise. But “if we watch the same scene again with the important difference that we have seen the bomb being placed under the table and the timer set to 11 am, and we can see a watch in the background, the same scene becomes very intense and almost unbearable . . . that is called suspense.”
Point of view in movies and fiction differ in essential ways. But Hitchcock’s distinction holds for fiction as well. Giving readers the clues they need to fully interpret a scene amounts to a kind of respect for the readers’ intelligence and acumen. What this means is that plot itself involves critical decisions about point of view: how much is going to be revealed to the reader, and when.
Here’s an obvious but important point about foreshadowing: the very fact of it being there means that the author knows what’s going to happen. He isn’t just making it up as he goes along. The fiction acquires a kind of layered density, and thus can begin to feel less like an artificial convention and more like life, in which a real person exists both before and after the scene at hand. We are not only engaged right from the onset but we trust that the engagement is going to go somewhere. That the writer isn’t going to keep banging on one note over and over like a bad heavy metal band; that there will be variations, motifs, new combinations to listen to; that, moreover, things will eventually resolve, even if the resolution is to let us see that no resolution is possible.
Great writers know when to move in, and when to pull back. They manipulate the distance. They don’t go too vibrato on the heartstrings, because that almost ensures sentimentality. They know when clinical information, even about a plot where facts are critical, becomes too much information—because then you’ve got a history textbook, not a novel.
But enough about them, the author and character. What about you?
Earlier, I said that the reader—let’s call him “you”—is always alone while reading, and though that’s true as you turn the pages, it’s only partially true. You may feel as if you’re sharing the book with like-minded brethren. This can happen when you’re reading a bestseller, a sensation—with millions of people plunging into the Harry Potter books, it’s harder to imagine that J.K. Rowling has created Harry solely for your personal delectation. There are also cult novelists, whose readers share certain traits or beliefs, from the people who are attuned to the God-inflected, gently witty inspiration of an Anne Lamott or single women who appreciate the hardships of the dating scene outlined in Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City to those who are tough enough to cotton to Cormac McCarthy’s grim dystopian vision. For certain kinds of humor, you may come to the book with ideas about the writer’s tone that predispose you to laugh. It’s not exactly a stand-up routine, where you have the live audience’s collective roar of approval and delight, but the author nevertheless counts on you to embrace a set of tenets about the world’s absurdity, which feels almost giddily shared.
As a reader, you expect to be paid attention to, courted—seduced. Here is French theorist Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text:
If I read this sentence, this story, or this word with pleasure, it is because they were written in pleasure. . . But the opposite? Does writing in pleasure guarantee—guarantee me, the writer—the reader’s pleasure? Not at all. I must seek out this reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader’s “person” that is necessary to me, it is this site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can still be a game.
Can we call Barthes’s “site of bliss” the part of our Venn diagram where writer and reader are “on the same page?” The feeling that the writer is talking to you—gets you—is critical. What does the writer give you credit for? How large a vocabulary, how wide a net of literary allusions or historical frame of reference? What set of experiences, beliefs, concerns?
Even though you’re not directly addressed by the writer, you want to trust that he’s respectfully aware of your presence, tracking your responses. You don’t want to feel like you’re being blathered to by the stranger sitting next to you on an airplane. You don’t want to be smooth-talked by a snake oil salesman, either (or, updating for our times, pelleted by spam about a penile enhancement product). I often have students complain that some novel that has done exceptionally well is garbage, that they could write a better book blindfolded and skunk drunk. But in fact, it is shockingly difficult—almost impossible—to successfully “write down.” Back to that pact with the reader: such efforts often seem transparently insincere. The reader will know that you think the plot or prose is “good enough for them.” Oprah believes in the books she trumpets; she never condescends to her audience. Your reader may not have the most refined palate in the universe, but that doesn’t mean he’ll feel flattered to eat Happy Meals at the kiddie table.Great writers know when to move in, and when to pull back. They manipulate the distance. They don’t go too vibrato on the heartstrings, because that almost ensures sentimentality.
So, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you. Are you working in earnest on a novel that has grown to 500 pages but you’re not sure exactly where it’s going and you’re not sure what to cut and also the story is told from two different points of view, one of which is first person and one is third person, and your professor has insisted that you change this, but you don’t see why because lots of authors you admire have done alternating points of view, so why can’t you? Is the work you’re doing pretty much autobiographical (your childhood sexual abuse, exile from your homeland, battle with addiction) and you have a lot of queasiness about revealing some of the things you must reveal to tell the story, but haven’t found a way to fictionalize the story, either, at least not convincingly?
I assume when I say, “I’m talkin’ to you,” that you get the Taxi Driver allusion. If you don’t, you can google a YouTube clip. While I’ll be referencing many works of fiction in this book as examples, I don’t want to lard it up with too many long sample stories. If a particular piece of fiction seems particularly relevant to your own writing concerns, I trust you can find it yourself. Not every writer who ever put quill to scroll will be cited here. Some of my own favorite writers are missing, but I don’t plan to be encyclopedic.
Furthermore, my conviction is that in good writing, every sentence is good, and point-of-view choices have been embedded in every phrase, every image. There is no “filler.” I not only believe that you can tell a lot from a small sample of a piece of writing but that it’s the best way to learn the craft. Working on that micro level forces you to really focus. You’ll never mistake a sentence from Marcel Proust as a sentence from Stephen King. You should be able to take that sentence of Proust or King and extrapolate to the whole work, the way an archaeologist begins to reconstruct the skeleton of the brontosaurus from the one fossil, or the way the homicide detective takes the stray hair down to Forensics for the DNA.
Take this first line from an undergraduate short story that has stayed with me for decades:
The man ran through the misty forest.
Not only does the line make me want to teach a journalism class instead so we can discuss the five W’s necessary in a lede (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) but it also makes me think about how fiction is different from journalism. Mostly, it makes me think about point of view. What man? Who’s watching? Is this a fairy tale? (For some reason I imagine the fellow in a fur loincloth.) And when, dear author, will you reveal what he’s running from?
Come to think of it, that’s kind of an intriguing first line. I might read to the second line.
Excerpted from Who Says?: Mastering Point of View in Fiction by Lisa Zeidner. Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Zeidner. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton. All rights reserved.