Friday, June 06, 2008

Head Shots

A Member of the Balbi Family,
Anthony van Dyck,
o/c, c. 1625,
Cincinnati Art Museum.

Mark Terry, novelist and freelance writer of both fiction and non-fiction, posted a collection of his essays On Writing (see his sidebar for the link) as a free pdf download.

Among the topic covered in his collection is an excellent discussion of distant and close third person POV with appropriate examples.

This distinction enlightened me -- quite possibly because his examples are both shrewd and pertinent (nothing beats a good example to illustrate a point to someone like me) -- since, in my bumbling way I have been coming to the same conclusion regarding first person POV.

First person is either praised or derided because of the informal intimacy asserted by it.

Some readers prefer distance from the narrator and/or the narration and jealously guard their position as observers of the play. They prefer their choice as to which character with whom they might wish to identify not be directly impugned by the POV.

Others are deeply attracted to and eagerly relish the experience of being inside a specific narrator's mind and personal space.

But it seems to me that in many first person narratives, just like those in third, writers may utilize both distant and close first POV to tell the story. And that a careful manipulation of emotional intensity is both natural and effective. Some scenes may read near to stream of consciousness in their immediacy; in others the narrator's thoughts and perceptions may move in a more remote, disengaged, objective fashion.

I'm still fumbling about with this theory/technique of close and distant first person POV and have probably failed to articulate the distinctions clearly. But I wonder if the reason that some stories in first person fail to engage is because they are either too close or too distant in their delivery.

Your thoughts?

A Friday Funny:

A woman walked into the kitchen to find her husband stalking around with a fly swatter
"Killing any?"
"Yep, three males, two females," he replied.
Intrigued, she asked. "Oh, how can you tell them apart?"
"Three were on a beer can, two were on the phone."


StarvingWriteNow said...

My thoughts... oh, honey, it's too darned hot to think today.

Liked the joke, though! Thanks for the smile!

Rick said...

Something like this?

Was it a darker shadow, moving? I couldn't be sure - then sudden blazing light, dazzling, like waves of heat on me ...

I grabbed the man from Thebes and bounced his head off the wall a few times. He talked. Even a Boeotian can grasp a simple concept, if you express it clearly enough.

In the first case we're seeing his sense impressions and hearing his unprocessed first thoughts. In the second, we get only a summary of the action, along with the character's reflection on what it all means.

Bernita said...

Made me grin too, Beth.

That's exactly what it means for me, Rick!
Thank you.

ChrisEldin said...

LOL!! The joke!!!

Sorry I have nothing much to offer about close vs distant POV since I'm trying to get a handle on it too... Only thing i've read is that using the senses of taste and touch pull the reader in to closer physical proximity, creating a more intimate POV.
Will keep reading this post for comments..

BernardL said...

The narrow vision in each first person POV scene relies so heavily on interaction with other characters, it's really difficult not to have huge info dump ruminations. Thanks for the joke. :)

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for the laugh this morning.

I think it is the character that makes or breaks first person. They have to be interesting and unique enough to carry the narration.

Bernita said...

That's a good thought, Chris.

I suppose, Bernard, that one could view a novel in first as totally an info dump rumination.

Bernita said...

An interesting character as the narrator is definitely important to the success of a story, Travis.

Sam said...

I think that if you write well, and if the story is interesting, it doesn't matter which POV you choose.
The tricky part is writing well and having a good story to tell, lol. The rest is just window dressing.

Bernita said...

True, Sam. I just trying to figure out some of the techniques for "writing well."

Robyn said...

Rick's example was great. I must admit that if I have to read first person (not my favorite) I prefer distant POV. The 'stream of consciousness' introspection makes my eyes glaze over after a page or two.

Bernita said...

Robyn, I'm wondering if "close" is more an emphasis on subjective feelings, and "distant" more of action and observations.
Yup, really liked Rick's examples.

jjdebenedictis said...

I do agree with BernardL; first person is so often "telling" rather than "showing". If the character has an interesting voice, that rescues the reader's interest for a little while, but after that, the book experience is identical to having your ear talked off by someone who won't shut up about themselves. I've seen first person done well, but that's rare.

I think the reason writers are told to avoid first person is the same reason we're told to avoid adjectives and adverbs: beginners need to train themselves out of these habits because they overuse them--the habits are really writing crutches. Once the writer has learned to write well without them, they're good enough at their craft to start judiciously breaking the "rules" of writing.

Bernita said...

"I've seen first person done well, but that's rare."
Ah well.
There's not much I can say in reply to that blanket statement, especially when the side of my face is stinging.

Rick said...

Robyn - to me, 'stream of consciousness' like my first snippet is best in limited doses. It works well for a chaotic situation, where something crucial is happening and the character just has to deal with it, and make sense of it afterward. If the whole book is like that, the character needs to get a grip!

The second bit encapsulates Philonikos the Sophist, the Marcus Didius Falco of Periclean Athens. I've never followed up, because I'm not sure the mystery ecosystem can support more than one hardboiled PI in classical antiquity.

Bernita said...

Exactly, Rick.I tend to use forms like as short bursts in critical situations.
Couldn't you do a short story? I truly loved that bit!

cindy said...

i find it really hard to analyze books i read, esp if i enjoy them. and i've not had any issues with first person tales as long as they are written well. why they work, i couldn't tell you.

it took me a while to get into confessions of an ugly stepsister by maguire, which was first person PRESENT. but woo, once he drew me in, he drew me in.

i'm of the stance that if you wield your prose, tense, pov like a pro, i'll read it just fine.

i wrote in third person close, because for me, it was the easiest thing to do.

happy weekend, b!

Bernita said...

~beams at Cindy~
(been beaming ever since I heard the news actually.)

I think a preference for first or third in either a writer or reader is simply a matter of individual taste and I certainly don't think one is somehow superior to the other.
Don't care for present tense myself, but I really liked Aquirre's Grimspace.

raine said...

Rick's example is very good.
I have a sucky computer that won't download Mark's stuff at the mo, so I'm winging it...
But seems to me a mixture of the two would probably be close to ideal? Too much of the 'stream of consciousness' method would eventually nauseate me, I think, but a bit of both?
I may not have a proper handle on the idea yet, though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very interesting thought. I've never really considered this but it's worth some cogitation. I like first person because of the immediacy I get in the head of the narrator, and it's fun to write it as well. At least for me. But I've always used a very close connection with the narrator in first person. I should really think of this carefully in writing the new Taleran book.

Bernita said...

Not sure I do either, Raine.
To me, when the character describes a scene, as in landscape or a room, or characters and actions without emphasis on senses and feelings - when the narrator's emotional reactions are not specifically engaged or detailed - then the POV is more in line with "distant."

Bernita said...

Charles, I think you use a combination, and do it very well - which is why the Talera books are such a great read.

Whirlochre said...

I'm not a big fan of 1st person — though I insist upon it for all my blog comments.

Bernita said...

Funny, that.
I see you sometimes choose to write in it, Whirl.

laughingwolf said...

cool joke at the end ;) lol

screenwriting texts help, too, re. pov

Bernita said...

So they say, Laughingwolf.

Billy said...

The third person options afforded to the reader--with whom to identify with--is certainly a factor, but you raise such an interesting point on the near/far with 1st person. Seems like it would take great skill and discipline to do with consistency, but this is definitely something worth mulling over seriously. Thanks!

Billy said...

... or may just "with whom to identify" -:)

Bernita said...

Billy, it seems to me that an individual reacts to events with varying degrees of intensity and that a story in first person might reflect that.
Too much of "near" or too much of "far" might be the reason some readers are turned off by first.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like close-in povs but sometimes it serves to have a more distant hook into the pov character's mind. In particular, I believe it is useful when you are showing certain events (say a mystery that's being solved) from varying povs without getting too close in.

But I think that if you determine the level of closeness to the character and edit zealously to keep it consistent, that's almost more important than determining which level of immediacy you want. The inconsistency can give you a bit of mental mal de mere!

spyscribbler said...

Love the joke!

Interesting thoughts. I've been thinking a lot about first person. I haven't come to any conclusions this week. I'm in the midst of a w-t-f happened to my voice crisis. It'll be okay by end of weekend. I hope.

jjdebenedictis said...

There's not much I can say in reply to that blanket statement, especially when the side of my face is stinging.

Um. I've stuck my foot in my mouth, haven't I? I'm sorry.

I was talking about published books I've read. If anyone can pull off first person well, I know you can. Your writing is beautifully lean; the "talking my ear off" phenomenon would not be an issue.

Again, I'm sorry if I offended you. I honestly didn't intend that.

Bernita said...

Since I choose deliberately to use both, Written, I probably give you mal de mer!

Natasha, I'm sure it will!

Thank you, JJ.
More than one person who comments here write - and are published - in first.

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't think so, Bernita. I was only talking generalizations, anyhow, and we all know how "the rules" are meant to be broken anyhow. You make your creative choice and I'm sure it will be a fine one.

As for the mal de mere bit, I was thinking more along the lines of when it is glaringly obvious. A bunch of older reads do that, as well as some of the long series books where the author is obviously pressed to present a new book every year and isn't as focused on good edits as the older works where she had more time.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.
For some reason I'm having the devil of a time accessing your blog all of a sudden. Makes my computer freeze.

writtenwyrdd said...

Typepad 'upgraded' and it's been goofy for a couple of weeks now. Keep trying and it will come up eventually.

jjdebenedictis said...

Urk. Okay, I really have been a heel. Let me back up and try this again.

First person doesn't often work for me, as a reader, for the reasons I outlined.

However, it was arrogant of me to say that, when I personally don't like something, that means it was badly done. It was also utterly rude of me to make such blanket statements here, amid those who do write in first person.

I am sorry, to both you and your readers. I ran my mouth without thinking adequately first. Thank you for calling me on it; I'm now really embarrassed I said that.

I apologize again, and I do hope no hard feelings remain. I enjoy your blog, and would hate to think I'd lost my welcome here. {:-(

Bernita said...

Truly an amende honorable, JJ!
Thank you.
You are certainly welcome here.

Rick said...

Here's one other odd thing about first person, its genre associations. It is something of a default in hardboiled, per my snippet, not a purely authorial decision. Not that you have to use it, but it is part of the tradition you're entering with that genre.

SzélsőFa said...

I too, tend not to care about first or third person, as long as the book is written well.

But what about those writers who mix these two types of pov.s?
Like they tell the story in third, but show anything else, including the sensations and thoughts characters feel and think, in first.
Is this approach a damned bad thing to do? Is this a sign of a bad style? Does this switching bugger readers a lot?

Bernita said...

Rick, I'm inclined to think that the "hard-boiled" became a popular sub-genre because it was written in first.

Szelsofa, I'm not sure whether you're referring to "close third" or a true switch between POV's.
Since readers have certain expectations and may be disconcerted if the writer leaps from head to head, the delineations would have to be clearly marked. Have seen it done in a mystery but the different POV's were in separate chapters.
I'd say one could do it - but very, very, very carefully.

Rick said...

Bernita - a taste for gunplay and dangerous dames probably has something to do with it, too. But your point is taken, because the detective's voice is truly the heart of the genre, even more than having a stiff turn up. You could write a story about someone opening a school, and it could sound like hardboiled.

I knew the type. He wouldn't pull you back if you were falling in front of the subway, but today he was moved by the needs of the disabled. He wanted his name on a building.

Bernita said...

Rick, are you sure you're writing in the right genre?
I am very much taken by Marcus and potential dangerous dames.

MissWrite said...

Did he remove the link? Or am I just blind? LOL I'm not seeing it anywhere and it sounds really good.

MissWrite said...

oops, found it, sorry. It was on his website, not blog. Got it. Thanks for the heads up on it. I look forward to reading it.

Rick said...

Bernita - if I could plot worth beans, I might try it. In some genres you can get by with a pretty simplistic plot, and let character and setting do the heavy lifting. But in spite of my snippet on educational funding, to sell hardboiled you pretty much have to come up with a convincing murder, then convincingly solve it.

With the counter proviso, perhaps, that the hardboiled hero is not called on to be Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the hardboiled hero - though by archetype reeking of testosterone - usually does his investigative heavy lifting in a rather feminine-coded way, by reading social cues. The medical examiner can determine the time of death. The PI sweet talks the dangerous dame, or knocks around the guy from Thebes, to find out what was really going on.

Is this why lots of dames read hardboiled? Not to mention that the classical PI is a parfit gentil knight. Guys from Thebes don't count.

Bernita said...

Excuses, Rick, excuses.
Try a short story with Marcus. Me loves testosterone and me loves those few lines.

Rick said...

That means I gotta buy Ellery Queen's or whatever (are there even still mystery mags out there?) and find out what the hell a mystery short story looks like!

Plus one interesting little research question I've never seen addressed. Did ancient Greeks really go around calling each other by five syllable names? Modern Aristotle is Ari, but what did his friends call ancient Aristotle?

Fancy names are fine for oligarchic toffs who hang out at Kritias' dinner parties with fancy boys and flute girls, and drachmas to fishcakes that's who the victim was. But the hardboiled effect is spoiled when you have to go around waterfront dives in Piraeus looking for some plug ugly named Thrasyboulos.

Bernita said...

Hi, Tami!

Rick, I'm sure there are some available on line.
And I think you can screw the "authenticity" for this. Your hard-boiled guy would shorten names in any event no matter what period he lived in - sometimes obscenely( "Hey, Pube") without a doubt.
You could have a LOT of fun with it.

Rick said...

I'm already playing:

Pericles got right to the point. "Parmenides, the son of Aphon, was killed last night."

"Bad news for people who hire out flute girls," I said. Bad news for Spartan sympathizers, too, but Pericles didn't need me to tell him that. Probably not about the flute girls, either. "What happened, and who by? Or is that what needs finding out?"

He shook his head. "We have him, young man named Thrasymachos, apparently Parmenides' ephebe. They got in a heated argument at a dinner party, and the lad pulled a knife. The Scythians brought him in without difficulty."

Not a very complicated case. "Whose modest little house was the party at?"

Pericles studied the light dancing in his cup. "Kritias'. Assume the regular guest list and you won't go very wrong. Everyone there was an eyewitness, unless they had sneaked off to a storeroom or the women's side."

The women's side in the house I grew up in was the curtain my mother and sisters got dressed behind. "Why this sudden interest in the tangled love lives of the Mars Hill set? You didn't send across town for me because some rich guy got his boyfriend upset."

"That's what I'd like you to look into, Philonikos," he said. Pericles was Mars Hill himself, with ancestors who fought at Troy. Mine did too, but stayed sensibly back out of trouble ...

Bernita said...

~chortle, chortle~
Rick, you've got it!
Great voice!
Have his fiddle with his fibula.

MissWrite said...

You know what Bernita, after I posted I thought to myself 'that was just rude, you didn't even say hi', and Im sorry, I was rushed, but I drop by and read quite often, just having some computer issues lately, and today was nuts with the storm/tornado that whipped through around here last night so I didn't even think, I was just so interested in the ebook download you mentioned.

I'm really sorry sweetie...
Hi, hugs, and I do cruise through still. :)

Rick said...

One last snippet before beddie bye, introducing Niko's, ahem, barbarian girlfriend, Kalliphryne.

"Then the motive can't be very complicated," said Kalli. "He done him wrong, or the other way around. You're getting paid for that? If I hadn't been born a girl, I could be a sophist too."

"You were also born a barbarian, unable to speak. I haven't heard that stop you." The gods wasted a lot of either brains or beauty on Kalliphryni. Technically she is a barbarian, from some place off west beyond Greater Hellas.

She came out. Her dress was strong on the air and water, hardly any earth; add your own fire. She looked great through it. "Parmenides, son of Aphon," she said. "He goes to – went to – all the best parties, and held tacky but very expensive ones himself. Had hands all over any woman in sight, including me till I kneed him where it hurts."

Women where Kalli comes from do things like that. "Good," I told her. Just because they're barbarians doen't make them stupid.

She poured cups, handed me one, melted onto the other end of the couch. "There's your motive," she said, "jealous boyfriend. At a party, right? Patricians are the same everywhere, but at home only we women get mixed up with nasty boys."

"Because your people are blockhead farmers," I told her. "You said so yourself. Even if you have a barbarian word for oligarchs." She ought to know it. Kalli may hail from the west side of nowhere, but her real, barbarian name, Cornelia, means 'My family used to invite Zeus over for dinner.' Barbarian women can be rich – visit Phoenicia and see – but who ever knew they could be upper class?

Bernita said...

No problem, Tami.

Rick, you MUST continue with your boiled sandal detective.

Rick said...

Now that he's even got a Roman girlfriend, from those noble & virtuous early days of Rome, how can I resist?

Watch it turn out that the Cornelians were a plebeian gens, and not even Roman till a hundred years later.

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