Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Lately I’ve been reading a mix of vintage and more recent novels in the historical and fantasy fiction genres, and I’ve come to realize I can get quite annoyed with narrative viewpoint. Even damn near curmudgeonly about it. Although there are several different types of narrative points-of-view, there are only two I really like, and the others are starting to drive me nuts.

I'm on the warpath against bad narrative viewpoint!
I intended to write this as a single post until I realized it was going to be way too long. So I decided to turn it into a series of four posts, some more ranting than others. Today I’ll start on a positive note with one of the narrative viewpoints that doesn’t stick in my craw: first-person point-of-view.

This is not necessarily the most prevalent viewpoint – especially in fantasy fiction – but when it’s done right, it really works. Here, the narrator is often the main character and we only experience the story through his or her eyes. The #1 benefit of this viewpoint is that it’s the most intimate with the reader. We get to know this viewpoint character perhaps better than in any other narrative point-of-view. A great example is Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series. All six of his novels are told through the first-person viewpoint of the protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. By the end of the first novel, the reader feels as if he or she knows Uhtred like a close friend. We can hear his voice in our head and we know what fuels his fears and passions. In these novels, first-person point-of-view works masterfully.

First-person point-of-view at its best!

But pulling off a good fist-person point-of-view requires a lot of skill. The narrator’s thoughts, mannerisms, and life have to be fairly distinctive or this character runs the risk of coming off generic and boring. It’s downright painful to spend 400 pages in the head of a dull character or one that frets too much or continually makes stupid decisions. All of this can drive a reader batty!

On occasion, however, a first-person viewpoint from a less-than exciting character can work, but often this happens when the narrator is the sidekick to the main character, yet is still distinctive enough in his or her own right to make the novel interesting. A good example of this type of narrator is Adso of Melk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Adso’s not the star of the show – William of Baskerville is – but his situation (including an unexpected encounter with a peasant girl) – is interesting enough to keep us engaged. A tremendous puzzle-like plot helps a bit too.

Adso of Melk makes a good narrator!
The other time this viewpoint will not work is when the story has a complex plot that requires the reader to see things from multiple points-of-view. All of the intrigue in A Game of Thrones would never have worked if the entire story was told through the viewpoint of Catelyn Stark. We’d never know Tyrion Lannister except as Catelyn sees him. And all of those rich scenes in King’s Landing, on the Wall, and in the Dothraki Sea would have never been portrayed because Catelyn was not there to view them. The same could be said for complex stories like Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. If Tom Builder would have been a first-person narrator, well let’s just say the novel would be a lot shorter and too much of the story would be lost. And if Stephen King’s The Stand was told only through Stu Redman’s eyes, we’d miss the scenes with Randall Flagg and the Trashcan Man, all of Vegas, and the novel's climax. How fun would that be?

My advice to authors is to save first-person point-of-view for stories where the only facts a reader needs to know can be observed through a single character’s eyes. Usually these stories are more character-focused, less epic in scope, and generally less complex in terms of plot than novels best told through a different point-of-view. Even then, only use first-person when you’re willing to invest in a character distinctive enough from the rest of us to draw the reader in. I know this advice might not apply to modern or paranormal romance stories, but that’s not what this blog’s about. If it’s fantasy or historical fiction, and were stuck with a single character’s viewpoint for the entire novel, for the love of everything make that person interesting!

So one viewpoint down, three more to go. And next week, may the ranting begin …


Bob Milne said...

I'm always leery of the first-person viewpoint. Like you say, it just doesn't work without the right character to back it up. Nice to see somebody else appreciates the sidekick in that role, though - that is one use of the viewpoint that I do like.

Joseph Finley said...

Bob - thanks for the comment! Looks like we're on the same page.

carmenferreiroesteban said...

Good post.
I agree with your points.
A first person viewpoint if the character is interesting makes for compelling reading because it creates an instant connection to the character´s mind.

You forgot the most famous sidekick of all: Dr. Watson.

A multiple viewpoint does not exclude first person narrative. Different characters could tell their stories in first person.

Joseph Finley said...

Carmen, thanks for the comment! I should have mentioned Watson. At least Umberto Eco modeled his main character, William of Baskerville, in part, on Sherlock Holmes, so maybe Adso of Melk is the medieval Dr. Watson?

Bard Fan said...

It,too, want to address Dr. Watson but to make a slightly different point from Carmen's. The choice of first person narrator matters greatly. For example, the two Conan Doyle stories in which Holmes himself is the narrator -- "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" and "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" -- are frequently regarded as among the worst in Doyle's Holmesian canon. Holmes just knows too much to be interesting. The same would have applied had Eco chosen William of Baskerville as his narrator. A first person narrator with limited knowledge is more fun to follow than a nearly omniscient one.

Joseph Finley said...


These are some great points. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!