A child’s Point of View: unreliable or devastatingly honest?

I’ve written before about the challenge of writing from a child’s point of view. To some extent, the child is an unreliable narrator as their view of the world is coloured by youth and inexperience and possible misconceptions. But there’s always the possibility that the child will see things as they truly are, uncluttered by notions of what ‘ought’ to be visible. the Emperor's new clothesThe ‘Emperor’s clothes’ is the classic example: whereas adult viewers see the Emperor  luxuriously clad as befits his/her status, the child sees that the Emperor is in fact naked. The child may say so, but will not be paid attention to because he/she is ‘just a child’.

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings shall come forth wisdom.” That’s a biblical quote, in which ‘wisdom’ is equated with ‘truth’.

There are two children in my new novel. One of them is central to the action, first encountered on page 1 and staying centre stage for much of the story. Writing from her POV meant getting into the mind and reactions of a fairly unsophisticated young person, biologically but not personally mature. Reaching back into my own memory of being that age was quite a shock. Had I really noticed what happened around me and analysed it in that way, so intense, so sceptical? To double check, I recalled my own child at that age, and the hundreds I’d encountered at school during my teaching years. It seemed to me that some perceptions were sharp and accurate, and some others were missing altogether. Adults may see something that the child misses completely – hence the ‘unreliability’.

from_a_child__s_point_of_view_by_nxxosThe other child in my latest story is younger, further back in my memory and beyond my teaching experience. This voice was harder to capture. One thing I was sure of however: this child is more ‘wise’ than those around him give him credit for. He may not say much but he misses very little of what’s going on, even though he may not understand all of it. He will offer what he knows only if asked directly, and demonstrate his knowledge in unconventional ways. Interesting. It creates tension that is subtle and quiet, but still intriguing to any reader whose senses have not been dulled by too much ‘action.’ I hope it works.

 

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.

 

Point of view – a more detailed look

When you’re a fiction-writing novice like me, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Not only had I never written fiction before I started on my first novel in 2008 aged sixty, I’d never learned anything about writing, no courses, no books, not even in a book club, although I read widely and daily. In those circumstances I embarked on the novel with confidence born of ignorance. I thought I could put words together quite effectively, but I hadn’t thought about structure or any other key questions. First person or third? Past tense or present? Plot-driven or character-driven?

In Part One of what was to become a trilogy I started with two questions for the reader: who pushed Alice in the river, and would the abandoned child ultimately find his mother? It was only after a year or two of hopeless meandering and some very critical professional feedback that I realised that neither of these questions really mattered. The most interesting questions were: why does cautious Jessie take a lover, and then another, and what happens when the abandoned child turns up twenty years later.

The key point raised by my ‘reviewer’ (Sarah Bower for The Literary Consultancy) was that I didn’t seem to understand ‘point of view’. Whose eyes are you looking through, Sarah asked; whose ears hear what’s being said? In the draft that I submitted for critique the point of view sometimes varied randomly from one sentence to the next, as if the narrator of the action was formless, slipping at will into the shoes of whoever might be around in the scene. I wasn’t bothered whether the eyes and ears were those of a major character or a minor one. I called it kaleidoscopic, she called it a mess.

My reactions to the critique were classic: for a number of weeks I put both it and the manuscript aside and refused to think about them. Then I decided that ‘point of view’ was a pretty silly concept and therefore it couldn’t matter much. In the end I bowed to the unavoidable conclusion that my reviewer knew much more about writing fiction than I do, and that I should think more about what she had suggested. Choose two or three characters to carry the ‘point of view’ she had said, no more. Make it clear to the reader whose point of view is paramount, chapter by chapter. If you want to change it within a single chapter do so carefully and purposefully.

It was soon very clear why I was tempted to either ignore the critique and abandon the whole project or carry on regardless. Limiting the points of view in this way changed everything. Almost every chapter would have to be re-written. And then another realisation hit me: if I wanted to tell a complicated story with very limited points of view, some of the details would have to be conveyed indirectly as none of my key protagonists could realistically be involved in witnessing the action directly. Sounds complicated, and it was. The first draft of the first novel took two years, and the radical redraft a further two before I had anything that was worth polishing. The effort involved, sustained by only a faint glimmer of confidence in the potential outcome, nearly finished me off. It was only stubborn determination not to waste the effort completely that finally pushed me to finish ‘A Good Liar’, cope with the repeated generic brush-offs from agents and decide in the end to publish the book myself.

The second and third parts of my trilogy have continued the decisions about third person, past tense and two or three points of view adopted for part 1. But now I’m thinking about what to write once the trilogy is complete, which should be summer 2014. Knowing what I know now, what different choices could I make about the next novel I hope to write?

My own reading has become more analytical, more aware of tenses, voice, dialogue and structure. Maybe reading fiction is like watching cricket: you never really understand what’s going on unless you’ve played it yourself. And I’m still thinking about ‘point of view’. If you choose the singular point of view, as in Jane Austen, all the action and details necessary for the reader have to be conveyed through the eyes and ears of one person. That person has to be in every scene, witnessing the action directly or hearing about it from someone else. Unless this key protagonist is merely the constant recipient of other people’s news, he or she has to drive the action forward by their own actions, or inactions.

I recall reading Robert Goddard and wondering why his protagonists seem so prone to getting drunk, or over-sleeping, or other mistakes that lead in turn to twists and crises in the plot. With only one point of view there’s no other way to drive the plot forward. Those same necessary personal frailties apply in spades to various contemporary fictional detectives – Morse and Wallender to name but two – who are irredeemably prone to aberrant behaviours, depression and dysfunctional personal relationships. How else can drama be created?

As writers we are faced with a choice of singular, limited or multiple points of view. What are the implications for both writers and readers? Do different genres necessarily deal with this issue in different ways?

Dealing with ‘Point of View’

In 2008 I went on a course entitled ‘How to Write a Novel’. Over a week, with expert tuition, we learned about structure, character, dialogue, all good stuff. I was hooked, with all the confidence of the novice. I wanted my tale to be multi-facetted, like a precious stone, glittering with fascinating minor characters, each of whom would see the action from their own unique perspective, adding richness and texture, etc etc. You get the picture. Ludicrous ambition.

There was another admired model of story-telling in my head, from the unlikely source of the US police drama ‘Law and Order’. Not the recent offshoots, but the old original series, with low-slung angular cars and police using public phones, and then mobile phones the size of bricks. In those early days, every episode of Law and Order followed the same formula beginning with the discovery of the crime, and usually a body, by minor characters who held our attention for only a few moments before their function is fulfilled and they disappear. These bit-part players provide a momentary, quirky (what a great word!) ‘point of view’, quickly overshadowed by the familiar detectives who arrive on the scene and take over.

When I began the tortuous journey towards my first novel I didn’t even think about whose ‘point of view’ I was writing from. I would relate the action from one character’s perspective, and then switch to another perspective within the same paragraph without any awareness that I was doing so. The idea and effect of ‘point of view’ was unknown to me. I wonder now whether it was mentioned on that first course and I missed it, or was it never raised at all?

The first draft of my novel was sent off for critical review after two years of painful effort, and six weeks later, just before Christmas, the response came back. ‘What happened to ‘point of view’?’ said the reviewer. ‘The reader sees the action from several different viewpoints within the same chapter, and some of those viewpoints are minor characters we know very little about. This is asking too much, the reader will be confused. You need to reduce the number of characters through whose eyes the story is told: two or three main characters at most. Make a choice.’

The advice was sound, but devastating. I couldn’t tweak a few things to fix the problem: the whole novel had to be started again. For a while I couldn’t face it, letting the distractions of Christmas and New Year push the troublesome task to the margins of my life. But in the end I knew that I had already invested too much in this project to let it go. I went back to the beginning and rewrote almost everything, cutting out some characters completely, changing the perspective, and reducing the overall length. It was my first painful experience of a task I heard described much later as ‘murdering your darlings’. My darlings were well and truly decimated, but the lesson was learned.

That’s enough confessional for now. I’m coming back again to the issue of ‘point of view’, but just for now Chapter 19 of Book 3 is calling me and cannot be delayed any longer. It’s ready. And I know whose point of view it will be from.