by wjw on July 18, 2006

I’m working on a new novel, Implied Spaces, and have surprised myself with a discovery.

Toward the end of the first chapter I noticed that I was writing in the Third Person Objective point of view. Which, for those of you who don’t obsess about these things the way writers do, means that I was describing everything that happened to my character, but limited myself to what a camera might observe. In other words, at no point did I enter the character’s mind or emotions, except insofar as the character chose to reveal these to others.

I hadn’t particularly set out to do this. What I’d intended was for my character to be a mystery at first, a mystery that would reveal itself later in the book. Since disclosing his thoughts to the reader would have given the game away, I excluded them, and as a consequence found myself in the Objective point of view without ever quite having made the conscious decision to go that way.

I’m now near the end of the second chapter. Any number of colorful and exciting incidents have occurred that should serve to distract the reader from the fact that they know nothing about the protagonist’s inner life, but I’m wondering how long I can keep this up, or whether I should. The Big Reveal should happen about Chapter Four, after which there is no technical reason why I couldn’t slip the narrative into Third Person Omniscient, or Third Person Subjective, points of view with which I or the audience might be more familiar or comfortable.

Almost all my work is written in Third Person Subjective, in which I limit myself strictly to what my character(s) know, think, observe, or feel. My characters tend to have strong inner lives that are best revealed in this way, and if done well it can lead to the reader forming a strong emotional connection with the character. Sometimes, though, I’ve had complaints from frustrated readers who have more experience, knowledge, or sheer intelligence than some of my characters, and can’t believe that my characters sometimes act blindly or without sufficient foresight, or without knowing what other characters know. I’ve trapped a frustrated reader in the head of my characters, and they’re screaming instructions and nobody’s listening.

This seems particularly the case in regard to Sula, in the Praxis books. She’s brilliant in many ways but socially dyslexic (at least outside a certain narrow ghetto social milieu), and readers just want to yell at her when she makes one of her catastrophic emotional blunders.

Hey, I think to myself, at least the readers are engaged.

If Implied Spaces continues in the Third Person Objective mode, I may be denying myself tools that could be used to connect to the reader.

But on the other hand, Jack Vance has had a long and successful career with novels written in nothing but the Third Person Objective. You never get into the heads of his characters, and it doesn’t seem to have harmed his work in the least.

And of course film, television, and theater is almost entirely Third Person Objective, chiefly through necessity. One of the things that was hardest to learn about writing for movies and TV was that the characters have no inner lives. The only way that character is revealed in the cinema is through action. (Or through voice-over narration, which is clumsy and intrusive, or through soliloquy, which though a convention of Elizabethan theater is nowadays considered to be “breaking the fourth wall,” dissolving the illusion that the story has carefully built.)

You can’t say that the camera’s eye point of view prevents the audience from connecting with characters in the movies. All I’d have to do is make the action sufficiently cinematic— which, in this novel at least, won’t be a problem.

So will my narrative continue in the Objective point of view? I don’t know yet. I’ll have to see if my character has a compelling inner life that needs to be explicitly laid out for the reader, or whether I can reveal it through action.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the works of Dorothy Dunnett. Her Lymond books and House of Niccolo series constitute master classes in the art of point of view. Dame Dorothy was an expert in hiding the football— and furthermore hiding it in plain sight. The principal villain in the House of Niccolo, though onstage throughout the series, isn’t revealed until the end of the eighth book (after reading which I looked back at the first book, and yes, Dunnett played fair). It’s all done through careful selection of the point of view— we dip into the characters’ thoughts only when those thoughts will send the reader on a wild-goose chase.

I kept Dame Dorothy’s lessons in mind when I was writing the Praxis books. The narrative is full of little time-bombs that aren’t scheduled to go off until, say, Book Ten. But though I put the time-bombs there— and though they’re sitting in plain sight— I made a point of never calling attention to them. Instead I was hypnotically waving my magician’s wand over something else. Most readers haven’t noticed these bombs, but I get email from those who have.

I’m not planning anything so massively complicated for Implied Spaces. I’ve only got one protagonist, and once I get Chapter Four out of the way, he’s not going to be hiding much from the reader or anyone else. By that point, if I’ve got sufficient momentum, the reader won’t be so much in suspense about what’s going on, as about what’s going to happen next.*

What this all means, I think, is that I’ve got some discovery of my own to do. I have to find out more about my protagonist, and decide what of this I want to reveal, and how.

I like discovering things. This book should be fun to write.

*(Thanks, Daniel, for that phrase.)

Urban July 19, 2006 at 11:54 am

This entry made me think about how I read. No new insight, really, but I liked it for making me do it anyway.

Kelly July 19, 2006 at 5:28 pm

I’m such a gullible reader. I never noticed any time bombs in the Praxis books, and I’ve read them all three times.

Next re-read I’ll have to be more suspicious.

dubjay July 20, 2006 at 5:50 am

Kelly, it’s obvious that my cunning strategems worked. It’s not that you’re a gullible reader, it’s that you read the books exactly as I intended you to. Glee, glee!

I’m deeply flattered that you’ve read the books three times. To be perfectly consistent, though, you should have posted that comment thrice.

Dave Goldman July 20, 2006 at 7:43 am

I think the first third-person objective POV book I ever encountered was Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. I was in high-school at the time, and it took me about half the novel before I could put my finger on what was bothering me about the text.

When I finally figured it out, I thought it was very cool. Hopefully your readers will react the same way.

Kathy H July 20, 2006 at 3:25 pm

The thing that Walter loves about Dorothy Dunnett’s NICCOLO series is exactly the thing that drives me bananas about it. We don’t know what Niccolo’s inner life is, and as a result, I found that, after reading about 6 books and several thousand pages, I didn’t give a flaming **** *** what happened to the character.

Plus, I knew by then that whatever she was telling me was going on for the first 600 pages would be completely undone in the last two. So it became a question of why bother to read the first 600 pages when I was going to find out it was all untrue?

So I would say there is a danger for writers in going this route, concealing their characters’ inner lives. You can generate more tension, or you can lose your readers entirely.

That said, I think Dorothy Dunnett has made Walter a better writer. I *always* look for the football he’s concealing. Often, he has used this technique in novellas, and it’s much easier to endure being fooled for forty pages than four thousand.

I hope he gets to write those last seven books of THE PRAXIS!

TomB July 20, 2006 at 4:38 pm

One thing that I really like about the Icelandic Sagas are how they objectively describe the motivations and emotions of the characters. It seems the story tellers made their best efforts to understand and explain why the characters did what they did, without any pretense of being the characters or being in their heads. It was a revelation to me when I read the sagas, I was so used to first person and omniscient third person narrative. I think the viewpoint is part of what allows the style to be so fresh even though the stories are so very old.

I’m glad Dave Goldman mentioned Hammett. The use of the objective third-person dramatically intensifies the suspense in Hammett’s stories. The Sagas of Icelanders have a very different feel. People in the stories do amazing and surprising things, but it’s all in the past tense.

Good luck with your novel!

dubjay July 20, 2006 at 6:47 pm

Hammett is a really good example, and THE GLASS KEY is one of the perfect examples of the objective point of view. The protagonist is the best friend of the boss of a corrupt political machine going through an election. The political opposition isn’t any better, it’s worse.

Hammett doesn’t spend any time telling you how bad the system is, he just tells you “This is how politics works,” and gets on with his incredibly brutal, incredibly hard-boiled story.

I often wonder how it would be coming across THE MALTESE FALCON with no preconceptions. When you read the book, it’s not clear till the last scene whether Sam Spade is a good guy or a bad guy. All we know is that he’s perfectly at home in this seedy criminal milieu. There are no clues as to what way he’s going to play that final scene, so there’s genuine suspense.

That would also have been the case for the first viewers of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart version of the film. Bogart wasn’t a big star up till that point, and he had only played villains. The audience wouldn’t have known that Bogart was a good guy until that last scene, and then it would have come as a shock, and probably something of a relief.

Now, viewing the movie, we know that Bogart is always the hero (because THE MALTESE FALCON made him a huge star who only played good guys), so we go in making assumptions about the character that the original audience wouldn’t have made.

Jose July 28, 2006 at 5:24 pm

If Neal Stephenson can get away with switching from past and present tense mid paragraph I suspect you can get away with shifting from objective to subjective if you cared to.

Coherent July 28, 2006 at 9:38 pm

Think of it as the difference between watching a shark swim and BEING the shark as they swim. Assuming a vulnerable viewpoint, first you might want to shoot the shark, but next you might be worried about not getting shot as you do what you do.

There’s a lot of difference between watching the shark and being the shark, and the switch between one or the other could be used to illuminate (to the reader) exactly what makes the shark bite, and why.

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