Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Below are some additional notes to the podcast article I did recently for Starship Sofa on Point of View (POV).

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Look at the Sherlock Holmes stories: here we have a main character who's brilliant but aloof, insightful of others yet often disdainful of them too. Yet we care about him. Why? Because Conan Doyle was clever enough to use first person POV, not omniscient. If Doyle had used omniscient POV, we'd have hated Holmes and wanted Moriarty to have beheaded him, not just dragged him over a cliff into a gorge, ensuring the arrogant bastard could never return.

And here's where Conan Doyle showed what a great author he was, because he chose for the first person POV Holme's friend, Dr Watson. The obvious choice would have been Holmes, because then the author had the perfect vehicle for telling the reader every brilliant thought passing through the great detective's mind. But then readers don't want brilliant thoughts coming at them like an AK-47 (incidentally, that's a POV violation), they want to feel wonder and mystery and magic and emotion. Holmes doesn't have time for any of that wimpy stuff; he probably doesn't even believe in it. But Watson does. He's clever, too, but can't usually keep fully up to speed with Holmes because a large part of his psyche is fuelled by empathy and compassion. And it's those qualities that draw us in to the story. From inside Watson's humane view of the world we can admire Holmes but not hate him as we would if forced to sit inside his immense but somewhat detached brain for the duration of the story.

Now, when they came to make films of Sherlock Holmes, there was a problem: the story couldn't be told from inside Watson's head. Therefore, there was no contrast and conflict between the empathic Watson and the some would say sociopathic Holmes to draw in the viewer's interest. Instead, they followed more of a music hall approach - which early cinema tended to follow, rather than the novelistic method - and created a very obvious contrast between the two main characters: clever and stupid. Watson became the straight man for Holmes, except Holmes wasn't very funny. Watson was the bumbling fool against which the director could easily show Holmes' brilliance. This would have been impossible in the books, even if Doyle had wanted to do the same, because we were in Watson's head and therefore he had to be at least clever enough to understand Holme's explanations when presented to him. But in film, Holmes just had to tell the camera.

As film making matured, and equipment improved, Watson's intelligence and empathy were gradually restored, at least in some versions, and as a result Holmes can be seen as less than omniscient - freed from that point of view - and be far more attractive as a result.

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I want to raise an issue to do with POV which is rarely if ever mentioned, which is the need for the author to deepen his own perceptions of his main character.

We live in a world of shifting viewpoints, basically. We get most of our stories now from screens where there is no steady POV. We also believe in diversity and appreciating other people's religions, nationalities, sexual preferences and choice of football team. The problem with this is that our appreciation tends to be shallow and only succeeds, if it really does at all, because no one ever challenges its depth.

I see a lot of manuscripts by new writers in which it's clear they do not know how to stick with a POV and deepen their insight of it, and thereby their readers' insight too. Instead, they adopt a camera-like POV which skits around their characters' faces, or describes them standing under a lamppost lighting a cigarette with smoke curling into the light, their eyes in shadow - as if that tells us something about the character. It doesn't: it's just a camera direction.

For a writer to produce a convincing POV he has to buck the modern trend of superficial, short-sighted, appreciations of one character after another, and instead stick with the one, gather his courage in both hands (well, one hand 'cos he'll need the other to write with) and go in deep, to the uncomfortable truth that lies at the core of all of us. He has to be unfashionable, like people who still want to get married. Marriage is so restricting, surely; it inhibits your choice; it's boring. Maybe, but it also can teach you more about another person and yourself than a history of picking up and putting down of partners according to the current fad.

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On Starship Sofa, I mentioned Brian Clough, a famous now deceased, football manager. Here's another Clough story:

One time, a load of fans ran on the field after a match - a big no-no - and Clough ran after them, clipping a few round the ears and forcing them off. This upset some people and I saw Clough interviewed about it afterwards. This young reporter said, "Mr Clough, some people might say you acted irresponsibly . . . " Clough said, "Now, young man, who are these 'some people'; are you one of them? Because if you are, say what you have to say like a man." End of interview; power struggle won - fixed POV defeats shifting ('some people'). Wonder intact.

Modern life is like that reporter, like a group of friends in the pub: one's talking while he's flicking through a magazine; the others are texting while they're sort of listening. Worse still, most people now get most of their stories on screen and in TV/film POV is not really an issue, where the camera shifts around from point to point. But here's the good news: the written story can do what no movie can - get you inside the main character's head. And what is it that has had millions of children sitting still for hours at a time, concentrating on just one thing: a written story about a boy wizard. So POV is still something people respond positively to, even if they're usually unaware of its presence.

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I hope you're beginning to see that the very limitation of POV is its power. I believe this is because the truth about another person - or a non-POV character in your story - lies more in the accumulated unseen clues they're not aware of presenting: what they don't consciously say or do; what's in their aura and their body language. In omniscient or shifting POV, the author takes the easy route of simply showing you what each character is thinking. But there's a problem there; because in real life, even if you ask someone to tell you the truth about themselves and even if they agree, the result will be a long way from the truth. This is because we don't know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.

So, it's the author's job to anchor the POV in the most appropriate character for observing the truth about the other characters, who in turn can intimate the truth about the main character. Then he has to do the work of selecting exactly the right expressions, movements, silences, unconscious habits, etc, in those characters that imply their truth to the reader, through the medium of the POV character. That way we are given two half-truths - how the POV character perceives himself to be and how he perceives others to be - which allows us to provide the other two halves. Implication is magic, in other words; whereas simply listing all the front brain thoughts and spoken words of your characters will turn your story into a nice, bright, shiny, risk-free, travel brochure.

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  • No one can teach you to write but somehow you have to get yourself taught.
  • There are no rules to what makes a great story but you can't be a real writer unless you know the rules in every cell of your being.
  • You have to write stuff that the market wants but no one knows what the market wants.
  • The story you're writing now must become a finished piece of work but you as a writer will never finish learning how to be one.