20 June 2007

Omniscient POV

We had a discussion at Western Women Writers today about omniscient POV, which used to be the way everyone wrote, but is not so prevalent these days. And I know Sherryl (Books and Writing) has recently blogged about POV, but tonight it's on my mind, so I thought I'd blog about it anyway.

These days readers want a more intimate relationship with one or a few more characters, but don't want to go head-hopping all over the place. POV is something my students often struggle with, but often they're not aware that they're struggling with it. I teach second year students, so they've already learnt something about POV in first year. (Kudos to this year's class, many of whom at least knew they were having troubles with it. But classes in the past have all said they're good on POV, and then when I get the chapters in ... )

I know as a reader I prefer an intimate viewpoint, and that's how I like to write -- from the inside out. These days most of the omniscient POV writing I see is in SF, whether it be science fiction or fantasy. That's not to say that's what everyone is doing in these genres, but some people still are. When I'm reading, if I am jumping from head to head, I don't form as strong as attachment as I do if I'm right inside one character's head.

Most people get the general gist of what the differences are between intimate (or subjective or limited, which are all names for the same thing) and omniscient. They get the whole one-character-per-scene viewpoint thing, but then will present something like: She thought it was a great time to go, and the look in her eyes said it all. This kind of thing drives me mad. We've started the sentence well inside the character's head but then jumped outside. A character cannot see the look in their own eyes. Ever. (Well, unless they're looking at their reflection, but using mirrors etc to do this is a cliche that we all should try to avoid. It's a cop out.) People even do this in first person, which drives me even crazier. In real life I cannot see my smile -- I can feel it, and so can describe it in those kinds of terms, whether visceral or emotional, but I cannot see it. I feel it when one eyebrow rises, a tightness across my forehead when I'm frowning.

I did a workshop with Andrea Goldsmith when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously, and she told us all to be visceral in how we described things. And that's a great bit of advice. Not: I touched my short, crew-cut hair. But: The stubble was prickly to my fingers. Visceral writing comes from the inside of the character so is truer to POV, and invokes the senses at the same time. I love it when I get double mileage out of something!

One of the other jarring things is when characters use words that are out of character to describe themselves. When I'm walking along the street, I'm not thinking about the colour of my eyes, so if I mentioned that in a piece of fiction, I'm violating POV. If my character is running for his life, and the narrative reports: "He slammed his size-ten feet onto the pavement", then it's a POV breach because he's not going to be thinking of the size of his shoes at that point of time.
That's not the character speaking, it's the author -- the author who is trying to get more information across to the reader. Zip. I'm pulled out of the story, and that's not where I want to be, especially in the middle of the action. As always, it's good to see what other writers are doing. But I do often see POV breaches in published work and often wonder whether the editors don't notice them, or think that they're not important enough to bother an author over. For this reader they are. Always.

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