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How the choice of person changes the narrative focus

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Though I am not much of a planner when it comes to writing fiction and tend to set out with little more than an inkling of what might transpire, I do need to establish – and early on – whose story I’m writing, who should act as a lens through which the action is observed, and whose voice should carry the narrative. These decisions inevitably create bias. It matters little that a protagonist or narrator has her facts all wrong or an outlandish take on things. A story’s reason for being is not to present a situation objectively but to animate a character’s world and show how her worldview directs the dramatic action. This involves selection and, as Stravinsky puts it, ‘whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength’. It can be liberating to escape one’s own prejudices and predilections but to adopt any persona also involves constraints, and these can make or break a story.

Latin American writers have shown me the value of meaningful stylistic experiment, not to mention the spectrum of possibility offered by point of view. In ‘Axolotl’, with an almost imperceptible sleight-of-hand, Julio Cortázar constructs a story in which identity and point of view are in such constant flux that the distinction between the real and the fantastic is broken down. Very different in style and content, yet equally challenging, is ‘The Son of Andrés Aparicio’, in which Carlos Fuentes fragments point of view and intertwines dialogue with narration, creating a story rich in texture and fluidity.

Narrative voice determines register, idiom, rhythm, pace, sentence structure, and a good deal more. Here’s an extract from my short story, ‘Child’s Play’:

My mum likes me to play with Wendy. She’s the lesser of two evils. Her dad’s a rough diamond. So is Mr de Rollo next door. He’s got lots of shiny things in his house and a silver car which sparkles in the dark, like the stars. He’s a dark horse. He made himself by climbing out of the gutter.

In this very early story, a child narrator is recounting, to her doll, a playground game which has gone awry, and trying to make sense of what has happened. Her language is larded with phrases overheard from her parents, which bespeak envy of a next-door neighbour and flag up – to a reader if not to the narrator – a sense of entitlement and class superiority. While the story is not autobiographical, I drew on the class-ridden idiom remembered from childhood.

Writers frequently claim, if not a monopoly on truth, then on a kind of truth regarded as more valuable than mere fact. On autobiographical aspects of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing says: ‘There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth’ but what kind of truth is meant and how does it become the property of fiction? Is it akin to ‘the moment of truth’ – a situation which tests a character and pushes her towards some revelation – for character, reader or both? A single point of view can be too restrictive to present this fictional truth effectively, particularly if, as readers, we only experience a character in role, for example, a doctor adopting her best bedside manner, or, indeed, a client in ‘patient’ mode. A split point of view can explore characters in greater depth.

When something more faceted is required, split narration can reveal contrasting bias and shifting balance of power. In other words, form reinforces content. In another of my stories ‘Friendly Voices’, a female psychiatrist and male patient pass the narrative baton back and forth as they attempt to circumvent the respective roles they find themselves in when they meet:

We are not heartless but practical, having learned from experience that we can only function efficiently by maintaining a certain distance. We have our own problems – who doesn’t – but we are, at heart, solvers, not sinkers…                  
Ah like tae get a wee blush goin on her, see that pulse start up at her throat. It’s no a lot a response but she’s no meant tae respond at all. It’s her job tae stay neutral.

My exasperation at a system which discourages a doctor from offering physical comfort to a distressed patient was undeniably one prompt for the story. Another was the notion of what ‘friendly voices’ might mean. Another was how to create a linguistic and situational gulf without obliging a reader to sympathise or identify with either character. Split narration can highlight differences in class, education, gender, as well as exposing similarities: loneliness and vulnerability.

Bias, or what I sometimes think of as an irked gaze, is not reserved for characters who bear little resemblance to me, nor for situations beyond my ken but how does it sit alongside autobiography and fiction? There is a difference between turning an authorial gaze on a protagonist and letting a protagonist turn her gaze on a fictional world. Or is there? Federico Fellini declares that ‘All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography’. Fellini’s elegant analogy suggests that art cannot but be autobiographical but the relationship is not straightforward and Fellini continues: ‘There is absolutely nothing autobiographical about my films, if you mean flat reporting and dull stony facts’.

What is to be gained from tracking down some autobiographical element unless the process such material undergoes in fiction’s mill is examined in detail? And is it possible to chart the process fully? As Ursula K. Le Guin has it in the opening paragraph of The Left Hand of Darkness:

…Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are.

These are the shifting sands where second-person point of view comes into its own. ‘You’ becomes a kind of second self, an ‘I’ as viewed through the fairground mirrors of fiction. A character can be observed from outside and inside. The second-person is a voice in the ear: a conscience of sorts, or an advisor, if not always a reliable one.

Narrative distance comes close as a whisker. Versatile, if underused, the second-person can be claustrophobic, and is often unsettling. In ‘Beyond Vigilance’, I wanted the voice to carry an element of challenge to the narrator (the mother), and to instil doubt at the story’s heart:

You could still feel the heat in your palm when you removed your hand. He had one of those handshakes, that reassuring squeeze you’d never quite trusted. Too keen somehow to evince trustworthiness. You wanted rid of him before Billy got back to the bar.

Mother, father and young daughter are on holiday in a country where attitudes to the care and supervision of children differ from what they know. The daughter has developed a schoolgirl crush on a local man. How does the ramped-up ‘stranger-danger’ meme of home translate into this unfamiliar environment? At times the second-person point of view can probe the narrator’s quandary in more depth and detail than can be credibly achieved in first-person narration.

A whole spectrum of bias can also be represented by a close third-person point of view, from a breath beyond neutral, to full-on rant, as here, when the protagonist of my novel, Pest Maiden, realises he’s been lampooned in a novel written by his estranged wife’s lover:

The only certainty was that it had happened. And every sodding bank clerk and night watchman, every rail commuter and golf widow, every bloody plant operator seduced by a squelchy title like Eating Passionfruit in Bed and a cover portraying a splatter of what looked like orange frog spawn, would soon know all about it. But the worst of it, the absolute sodding worst of it was that what folk might believe, no matter what he said to the contrary, would be a mean, twisted version of the truth.

Here, by way of word choice, close third can convey character, mood and attitude as well as (uncensored) bias.

Until fairly recently, I have mostly steered clear of an omniscient point of view. Perhaps such an elevated viewpoint brought on a kind of acrophobia, or the fact that adopting an all-knowing perspective entailed umpteen decisions, stylistic and structural. But material makes its own demands and in my most recent novel, Unspeakable, set in late seventeenth-century Edinburgh and based on the life and times of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in the UK to be hanged for blasphemy, I felt the need for more scope and flexibility. I wanted to vary the narrative distance, to present the world both from the limited perspective of the protagonist and also, at times, to step back and, with a cooler eye, observe the broader sweep: characters in the landscape of seventeenth-century Edinburgh. This might seem liking having my cake and eating it but each adjustment of narrative distance involves a recalibration of constraints, of bias. In the process, I found that an omniscient narrator doesn’t present an even-handed, inclusive version of events. This, too, is a fiction, perhaps the ultimate fiction. Even if a narrator claims to be telling the whole story, the truth is, there’s probably no such thing.

Dilys Rose is a novelist, short story writer and poet. She has published eight books of fiction and four of poetry, most recently Unspeakable (2017), set in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. A new poetry pamphlet, Stone the Crows, is due in 2020.

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