By Lu Anne Stewart
As writers, one of the very first choices that confronts us as we begin to write any piece of fiction is to answer this simple question: who is speaking? Just who, exactly, is telling this story to the reader?
It’s a pretty big choice to have to make on page one, staring at the expanse of white across a blank computer screen. Nobody wants to get 300 pages into writing a novel and then realize, gee, this would work a heck of a lot better if I switched the whole thing from first person point of view to omniscient!
Struggling with this decision over the years, I’ve found that it goes beyond just picking a point of view. Imagine a story about a 14-year-old girl told in the first person. From what vantage point is she narrating? Is she still 14, with the voice and world view of a young girl? Or is she reflecting back on the events of the story 10 years later, or 40? And which choice allows you to tell this tale in the most compelling way? Author Alice Sebold solved this dilemma brilliantly in The Lovely Bones as her young narrator, tragically murdered at age 14, observed everything from her perch in heaven!
When I first started writing fiction, I found that all of my protagonists sounded exactly like me – no matter whether they were narrating the story or I was channeling their thoughts in third person. They all had a certain sing-song, smart-alecky voice that I remember using in freshman year creative writing.
Then I had a revelation.
I was developing an idea for a short story about a middle-aged man who owned a palm tree farm in rural Florida, and I decided to write it with him as the narrator in first person. As a woman writer, it was the first time I’d tried to write in a man’s voice. What I found is that writing as Jim the palm tree grower forced me to dig deeper into his unique character, thinking about the tone and rhythm of his voice, what he had lived through, how he laughed and what made him lose his temper, what memories were important to him.
As I wrote, I could hear Jim’s voice clearly in my head. The story flowed and the college girl voice that had dogged my earlier writing was gone. I think it’s no coincidence that this story, The Sway of Palms, was the first one I ever got published.
Whenever I read novels, I find a wonky kind of delight in analyzing how the author has used point of view. My favorite example is the wonderful novel Snow by Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. About two-thirds of the way through the book (modest spoiler alert here) something startling happens. The narrator (whom I’d assumed to this point was just a third-person omniscient voice of the author) suddenly is revealed as an actual character in the story. What?? Then Pamuk gives us the fascinating experience of going back and seeing how that character came to know about all of the events he has been narrating. Definitely a “wow” achievement in creative point of view.
As for me, choosing a point of view was unusually easy for the novel I’m working on now. Digging is the story of an idealistic young reporter in the late 1970s who uncovers a mystery in a small town. My reporter heroine, Meg Sullivan, is a trained observer and writer. By having her tell the story in first person, I can let the reader hear her voice and how she processes what she is seeing and discovering. The point of view will help reveal what kind of journalist and person she is. As I sit down at the computer each time, I listen for Meg’s voice to guide me.
How about you? As a writer or a reader, do you have a favorite point of view for a story? Do you have a favorite book in which the voice of the narrator particularly charmed or captivated you?