Friday, September 26, 2008

What's the Point: POV in Fiction

The function of point of view is to establish which character
or characters the author has chosen to relay the dramatic information
contained in a story and to suggest or imply attitudes of one or more
characters to these events. It is a narrative lens through which a story is
seen; the agendas and sensitivities of one or more narrators thorough
which the story appears to emerge.

The reader is more comfortable knowing whose version of events is being
presented. The reader wants to know who the teller is (or are), followed by
whose story it is.

Point of view also helps us feel more closely immersed in the
dramatic action, contributing to the suspension of disbelief necessary for
the reader to become fully invested in the narrative. Thus, relevant point of view questions for writers and readers:
Who is telling the story?
Why did the author choose that person or persons?
What effect does this particular point of view serve?

Point of focus is the time frame in which the narrative is set. A
retrospective focus is one in which a character is relating events that took
place at an earlier time, which allows that character the perspective of
learning from the consequences, learning from what was done and what
was not done. Barnaby, for example, is relating an event that happened to
him in his early twenties, describing it as though he were seeing the event
from the distance and experience of fifty-odd years. A present-time focus
renders the dramatic action at the moment it actually took place. The
intent of this focus is to give the reader the sense of the action as it is
taking place right now.

Point of time is the moment when any given moment of the story is taking
place. It is represented by verb tenses. The preterit or immediate past
tense is conventionally represented as now. “John woke up early this
morning” is used to convey to the reader, Here is John, waking up now. If
we want to suggest that John has already been up for a while, we’d
introduce the auxiliary verb had and say, “John had been up earlier than
usual this morning.” Using the “had” form indicates action completed in
the past. The so-called present-tense form of narrative renders action
through the lens of the “now” of all characters, thus “John gets up early
this morning,” used to convey, Here is John, waking up now. Using the
present-tense approach, you’d indicate past action with the direct past
tense. “John got up early, remembering he has to be at work before the
Boss, but even so, he has to rush to get ready.”

All point of view filters (persons) may be rendered in the present tense
now or the conventional past tense now.

Whatever verb tense you choose, the contemporary narrative
convention requires more than fifty percent to take place in the now;
upwards of forty percent (backstory, past influences, memories) may take
place in the past.

First person point of view is a narrative condition in which one individual
in a cast of characters tells the story, using the pronoun I to distinguish
him/or herself from the author or any other character. From the very
opening line of Moby-Dick, the first person narrator establishes himself as
such an individual. “Call me Ishmael,” he says, then goes on to tell us why
he signed aboard the Pequod as a seaman. The strength of this narrative
tactic is demonstrated when readers buy into this method of accounting for
the dramatic action and motivation as a means of suspending their
disbelief that the fact of the dramatic events actually took place.

One disadvantage of this point of view: The reader may find reason to
consider the I-narrator naïve or untrustworthy, accordingly doubting the
accuracy of the events reported. This could cause the reader to patronize
the naïveté, dislike the narrator, or abandon any interest in what happens
to the narrator.

Another disadvantage of first person point of view: the narrator must be
present in every scene or have a plausible reason for knowing what took
place during his absence.

Second person point of view is a narrative condition in which the author
addresses the audience directly, using the pronoun you, as though
suggesting that the reader has merged personality with a major character
in the narrative. The result of this merger makes the narrative seem as
though the energy of the story is being directed at a character instead of
the conventional forms, which make the dramatic energy seem to be
coming from a specific character.

This is a less formal condition than the impersonal-sounding “one,” as in
“one works to the best of one’s abilities” as opposed to “You work to the
best of your abilities.” Although it works equally well with the
conventional past tense=immediate present arrangement and the
sometimes useful present tense=immediate moment narrative format, the
second person point of view is more difficult to control than any other
point of view. One reason for this is because of the way it appears to violate
a dramatic taboo of speaking directly to the audience/reader; another
reason for the difficulty is because writers are often discouraged from
experimenting with the format and readers are not used to encountering

Third person point of view is a narrative condition in which the pronoun
he or she becomes the principal focus; one character is seen experiencing
the dramatic events as they occur, then relating them. This same
individual brings into each scene memories, biases, and side effects that
are relevant to the developing story. This individual must appear in each
scene in the narrative or have plausible access to the events that occurred
in his absence.

Multiple point of view is a narrative condition arising when the author
selects two or more characters from the cast and allows each of these to be
the filter of dramatic events. Although it is common for a particular
character to have the point of view for at least a chapter before
relinquishing the stage to another, it is also feasible to switch point of view
from one scene to another.

The longer the narrative, the more useful the multiple approach becomes,
allowing the reader to see how two or more characters respond to the same

Short stories are not conventionally related in the multiple point of view,
the omniscient seeming a better choice if such an approach is wanted.
Omniscient point of view is a narrative condition where the author shifts
the filtering and experiential focus from one character to another (and
possibly back again) within the same scene or chapter. Although effective,
it is difficult to control and may cause the reader some confusion in
identifying which characters in a narrative are the primary characters.

The omniscient point of view is the literary equivalent of a mixed-doubles
tennis match. In whose territory will the ball land? How effective will the
return be? Was there a particular reason why the ball was directed at this

The epistolary or letter-writing point of view is a narrative condition
where much or all of a story is related through an exchange of letters,
email, telephone answering machine messages and similar electronic
format. This form dates back to the eighteenth century but can still find
contemporary energy, allowing the author to use as many points of view as
necessary to present the desired dramatic picture.

Examples of Point of View

First Person Point of View (I as narrator):
Example # 1: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
"You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made
by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which
he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen
anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the
widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary,
and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true
book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

"Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money
that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand
dollars apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled
up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched
us a dollar a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body could tell
what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed
she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time,
considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways;
and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and
my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he
hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might
join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she
called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She
put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and
sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing commenced again.
The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you
got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the
widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though
there warn't really anything the matter with them, -- that is, nothing only
everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different;
things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go

"After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the
Bullrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by
she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I
didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people."

Example # 2: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my
infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit
than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his
tombstone and my sister - Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.
As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness
of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs),
my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived
from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an
odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From
the character and turn of the inscription, `Also Georgiana Wife of the
Above,' I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and
sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which
were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the
memory of five little brothers of mine - who gave up trying to get a living,
exceedingly early in that universal struggle - I am indebted for a belief I
religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with
their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in
this state of existence.

"Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river
wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression
of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable
raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that
this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that
Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were
dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and
Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that
the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes
and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the
marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the
distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that
the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry,
was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from
among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little
devil, or I'll cut your throat!”

Example # 3 (present tense): Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.
"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If
you can bend space, you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and
could move faster than light you could move backward in time and exist in
two places at once.

"It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his
raveling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on is
head so that the blood would rush down into his brain and nourish it. I
didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well.
He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you
could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid of top of another.
You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes
this comes to surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes

Example # 4: (major action seen by ancillary character) The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some
advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just
remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages
that you've had."

He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually
communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great
deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments,
a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also
made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind
is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it
appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I
was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the
secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were
unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile
levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate
revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations
of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are
usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving
judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of
missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested,
and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is
parceled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission
that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet
marshes but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the
world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I
wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the
human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was
exempt from my reaction--Gatsby who represented everything for which I
have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of
successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some
heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related
to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten
thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that
flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the
"creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic
readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it
is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out all right
at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the
wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the
abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middlewestern
city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan
and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch,
but the fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the
wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.
I never saw this great-uncle but I'm supposed to look like him--with
special reference to the rather hard-boiled painting that hangs in
Father's office. I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a
century after my father, and a little later I participated in that
delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the
counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being
the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the
ragged edge of the universe--so I decided to go east and learn the bond
business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it
could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it
over as if they were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said,
"Why--ye-es" with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance
me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I
thought, in the spring of twenty-two.

Second Person Point of View (You as narrator)
Example # 5 Bright Lights, Big City by Jay Macinerney
"You are not the type of guy who would be at a place like this at this
time in the morning. But here you are and you cannot say that the terrain
is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a
nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either
Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip
into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then
again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack
of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already
turned on the imperceptible pivot where two a.m. changes to six a.m. You
know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to
concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous
damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there,
you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet
trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush."

Example # 6 If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a
winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.
Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the tv is always on in
the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!”
Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise. “I’m reading. I don’t
want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket;
speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if
you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up
or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy
chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the
hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the
bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position.
With the book upside down, naturally.
Of course the ideal position for reading is something you can never
find. In the old days, they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People
were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested
like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of
reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the
book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear
with a special harness, seems attractive…

Example # 7 Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne
Chapter One
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on
the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is as far as he knows the
only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is
another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the
bottom and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie the Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But
I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“I don’t.”
“But you said—“
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ther means?”
“Ah, yes; now I do,” I said quickly, and I hope you do, too, because it
is all the explanation you’re going to get.

Example # 8 Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
Four P.M.
The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the
worst day of your life. Or so you think. It isn’t the worst day of your life,
but you think it is. And when you give voice to that thought, it is with
conviction and a minimum of rhetorical embellishment.

“This is the worst day of my life,” you say as you drop a salted
peanut into your double martini—on better days you drink white wine—and
watch it sink. It spirals downward more slowly, more gracefully than your
plunging fortunes, the pretty little gin bubbles that gather around the
peanut a marked contrast to the lumps and burrs and stinging things that
are attaching themselves to your heart.

It has been approximately three hours since the market has slid off
the roof and the shocked, and at times, hysteric roar that had filled the
Bull & Bear earlier in the afternoon is starting to give way to a slightly
dimmer din of survival strategies and cynical jokes. You share neither in
the desperate ploys nor the false mirth. You hold your prematurely
graying head in your hands and repeat, “This is the worst day of my life.”
“Come on kid,” says Phil Craddock. “The market’ll be back.”
“Maybe the market will be back. But I won’t. I’ve left my clients so
far under water, they’re going to need gills to breathe.” You gulp a fireball
of martini. “Posner knows it, too. He passed me in the hall right after the
bell and asked me if I didn’t think nursing was a noble vocation.”

Third Person Point of View (He or She as narrator)
Example # 8 Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and
smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the
creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs
of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling
rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos
dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to weather for two nights
and tree days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor,
sweeten that meat to the bone.

Snow clouds had replaced the horizon, capped the valley darkly, and
chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches. Ree,
brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood barearmed
in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks
reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat
boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, body
made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming
clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked at the
scant woodpile, shuddered. The coming weather meant wash hung outside
would freeze into planks, so she’d have to stretch clothesline across the
kitchen and above the woodstove, and the puny stack of wood split for the
potbelly would not last long enough to dry much except Mom’s underthings
and maybe a few T-shirts for the boys. Ree knew there was no gas for the
chain saw, so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the
valley and fell around her.

Example # 9: Stoner by John Williams
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in
the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height
of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted
an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death
in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few
students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his
courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a
medieval manuscript to the University library. Tis manuscript may still be
fund in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to
the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner,
Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly
who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a
casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem
when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a
reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is
merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with
which they can identify themselves or their careers.

He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the
village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the
University. Though his parents were young at the time of is birth—his
father twenty-five, his mother barely twenty—Stoner thought of them,
even when he was a boy, as old. At thirty, his father looked fifty; stooped
by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the
family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently,
as if it were a long moment she had to endure. Her eyes were pale ad
blurred, and the tiny wrinkles around them were enhanced by thin graying
hair worn straight over her head and caught in a bun at the back.

Example # 10: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and
pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home
Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri,
and requested the bartender to join him in "The Good Old Summer
Time," the waltz of the day.

Blowing on a glass, polishing it and glancing at Elmer through its
flashing rotundity, the bartender remarked that he wasn't much of a
hand at this here singing business. But he smiled. No bartender
could have done other than smile on Elmer, so inspired and full of
gallantry and hell-raising was he, and so dominating was his beefy

"All right, old socks," agreed Elmer. "Me and my room-mate'll show
you some singing as is singing! Meet roommate. Jim Lefferts.
Bes' roommate in world. Wouldn't live with him if wasn't! Bes'
quarterback in Milwest. Meet roommate."

The bartender again met Mr. Lefferts, with protestations of
distinguished pleasure.

Elmer and Jim Lefferts retired to a table to nourish the long,
rich, chocolate strains suitable to drunken melody. Actually, they
sang very well. Jim had a resolute tenor, and as to Elmer Gantry,
even more than his bulk, his thick black hair, his venturesome
black eyes, you remembered that arousing barytone. He was born to
be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said
it sonorously. He could make "Good morning" seem profound as Kant,
welcoming as a brass band, and uplifting as a cathedral organ.

Multiple Point of View (multiple I, multiple he or she, combinations of
I and he or she, possibly even omniscient anonymous)
Examples of multiple point of view novels:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
A Return to Earth by Jim Harrison
Love Invents Us by Nicole Kraus
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Omniscient Point of View (the “Fly-on-the-Wall”)
Example # 11: “Boys,” a short story by Rick Moody

BOYS ENTER THE HOUSE, boys enter the house. Boys, and with them the
ideas of boys (ideas leaden, reductive, inflexible), enter the house. Boys,
two of them, wound into hospital packaging, boys with infant-pattern
baldness, slung in the arms of parents, boys dreaming of breasts, enter the
house. Twin boys, kettles on the boil, boys in hideous vinyl knapsacks that
young couples from Edison, NJ., wear on their shirt fronts, knapsacks
coated with baby saliva and staphylococcus and milk vomit, enter the
house. Two boys, one striking the other with a rubberized hot dog, enter
the house. Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow
switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house.
Boys enter the house speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house calling for
mother. On a Sunday, in May, a day one might nearly describe as perfect,
an ice cream truck comes slowly down the lane, chimes inducing
salivation, and children run after it, not long after which boys dig a hole in
the back yard and bury their younger sister's dolls two feet down, so that
she will never find these dolls and these dolls will rot in hell, after which
boys enter the house. Boys, trailing after their father like he is the Second
Goddamned Coming of Christ Goddamned Almighty, enter the house,
repair to the basement to watch baseball. Boys enter the house, site of
devastation, and repair immediately to the kitchen, where they mix lighter
fluid, vanilla pudding, drain-opening lye, balsamic vinegar, blue food
coloring, calamine lotion, cottage cheese, ants, a plastic lizard one of them
received in his Christmas stocking, tacks, leftover mashed potatoes,
Spam, frozen lima beans, and chocolate syrup in a medium-sized saucepan
and heat over a low flame until thick, afterward transferring the contents
of this saucepan into a Pyrex lasagna dish, baking the Pyrex lasagna dish
in the oven for nineteen minutes before attempting to persuade their sister
that she should eat the mixture; later they smash three family heirlooms
(the last, a glass egg, intentionally) in a two-and-a-half-hour stretch,
whereupon they are sent to their bedroom until freed, in each case thirteen
minutes after. Boys enter the house, starchy in pressed shirts and flannel
pants that itch so bad, fresh from Sunday school instruction, blond and
brown locks (respectively) plastered down but even so with a number of
cowlicks protruding at odd angles, disconsolate and humbled, uncertain if
boyish things — such as shooting at the neighbor's dog with a pump-action
BB gun and gagging the fat boy up the street with a bandanna and showing
their shriveled boy-penises to their younger sister — are exempted from
the commandment to Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all
thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself. Boys enter the
house in baseball gear (only one of the boys can hit): in their spikes, in
mismatched tube socks that smell like Stilton cheese. Boys enter the house
in soccer gear. Boys enter the house carrying skates.

Boys enter the house with lacrosse sticks, and soon after, tossing a
lacrosse ball lightly in the living room, they destroy a lamp. One boy enters
the house sporting basketball clothes, the other wearing jeans and a
sweatshirt. One boy enters the house bleeding profusely and is
taken out to get stitches, the other watches. Boys enter the house at the
end of term carrying report cards, sneak around the house like spies of
foreign nationality, looking for a place to hide the report cards for the time
being (under a toaster? in a medicine cabinet?). One boy with a black eye
enters the house, one boy without. Boys with acne enter the house and
squeeze and prod large skin blemishes in front of their sister. Boys with
acne-treatment products hidden about their persons enter the house. Boys,
standing just up the street, sneak cigarettes behind a willow in the Elys'
yard, wave smoke away from their natural fibers, hack terribly,
experience nausea, then enter the house. Boys call each other Retard,
Homo, Geek, and, later, Neckless Thug, Theater Fag, and enter the house
exchanging further epithets. Boys enter house with nose-hair clippers,
chase sister around house threatening to depilate her eyebrows. She cries.
Boys attempt to induce girls to whom they would not have spoken only
six or eight months prior to enter the house with them. Boys enter the
house with girls efflorescent and homely and attempt to induce girls to
sneak into their bedroom, as they still share a single bedroom; girls refuse.
Boys enter the house, go to separate bedrooms. Boys, with their father (an
arm around each of them), enter the house, but of the monologue
preceding and succeeding this entrance, not a syllable is preserved. Boys
enter the house having masturbated in a variety of locales. Boys enter the
house having masturbated in train-station bathrooms, in forests, in beach
houses, in football bleachers at night under the stars, in cars (under a
blanket), in the shower, backstage, on a plane, the boys masturbate
constantly, identically, three times a day in some cases, desire like a
madness upon them, at the mere sound of certain words, words that sound
like other words, interrogative reminding them of intercourse, beast
reminding them of breast, sects reminding them of sex, and so forth, the
boys are not very smart yet, and as they enter the house they feel, as
always, immense shame at the scale of this self-abusive cogitation, seeing a
classmate, seeing a billboard, seeing a fire hydrant, seeing things that
should not induce thoughts of masturbation (their sister, e.g.) and
then thinking of masturbation anyway. Boys enter the house, go to their
rooms, remove sexually explicit magazines from hidden stashes, put on
loud music, feel despair. Boys enter the house worried; they argue. The
boys are ugly, they are failures, they will never be loved, they enter the
house. Boys enter the house and kiss their mother, who feels differently
now they have outgrown her. Boys enter the house, kiss their mother, she
explains the seriousness of their sister's difficulty, her diagnosis. Boys
enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in their yard where
the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they
go to their sister's room, sit by her bed. Boys enter the house and tell their
completely bald sister jokes about baldness. Boys hold either hand of their
sister, laying aside differences, having trudged grimly into the house. Boys
skip school, enter house, hold vigil. Boys enter the house after their
parents have both gone off to work, sit with their sister and with their
sister's nurse. Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the
house, very worried now, didn't know more worry was possible. Boys enter
the house carrying controlled substances, neither having told the other
that he is carrying a controlled substance, though an intoxicated posture
seems appropriate under the circumstances. Boys enter the house weeping
and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house embarrassed, silent,
anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, grief-stricken. Boys enter the
house on vacation, each clasps the hand of the other with genuine warmth,
the one wearing dark colors and having shaved a portion of his head, the
other having grown his hair out longish and wearing, uncharacteristically,
a de-dyed shirt. Boys enter the house on vacation and argue bitterly about
politics (other subjects are no longer discussed), one boy supporting the
Maoist insurgency in a certain Southeast Asian country, one believing that
to change the system you need to work inside it; one boy threatens to beat
the living shit out of the other, refuses creme brulee, though it is created by
his mother in order to keep the peace. One boy writes home and
thereby enters the house only through a mail slot: he argues that the other
boy is crypto-fascist, believing that the market can seek its own level on
questions of ethics and morals; boys enter the house on vacation and
announce future professions; boys enter the house on
vacation and change their minds about professions; boys enter the house
on vacation, and one boy brings home a sweetheart but throws a tantrum
when it is suggested that the sweetheart will have to retire on the folding
bed in the basement; the other boy, having no sweetheart, is distant and
withdrawn, preferring to talk late into the night about family members
gone from this world. Boys enter the house several weeks apart. Boys
enter the house on days of heavy rain. Boys enter the house, in different
calendar years, and upon entering, the boys seem to do nothing but
compose manifestos, for the benefit of parents; they follow their mother
around the place, having fashioned these manifestos in celebration of
brand-new independence: Mom, I like to lie in bed late into the morning
watching game shows, or, I'm never going to date anyone but artists from
now on, mad girls, dreamers, practicers of black magic, or, A
man should eat bologna, sliced meats are important, or, An American
should bowl at least once a year, but these manifestos apply only for brief
spells, after which they are reversed or discarded. Boys don't enter the
house at all, except as ghostly afterimages of younger selves,
fleeting images of sneakers dashing up a staircase; soggy towels on the
floor of the bathroom; blue jeans coiled like asps in the basin of the washing
machine; boys as an absence of boys; blissful at first, you put a thing down
on a spot, put this book down, come back later, it's still there; you buy a box
of cookies, eat three, later three are missing. Nevertheless, when boys
next enter the house, which they ultimately must do, it's a relief, even if it's
only in preparation for weddings of acquaintances from boyhood, one boy
has a beard, neatly trimmed, the other has rakish sideburns, one boy
wears a hat, the other boy thinks hats are ridiculous, one boy wears khakis
pleated at the waist, the other wears denim, but each changes into his suit
(one suit fits well, one is a little tight), as though suits are the liminary
marker of adulthood. Boys enter the house after the wedding and they are
slapping each other on the back and yelling at anyone who will listen. It's a
party! One boy enters the house, carried by friends, having been arrested
(after the wedding) for driving while intoxicated, complexion ashen; the
other boy tries to keep his mouth shut: the car is on its side in a ditch,
the car has the top half of a tree broken over its bonnet, the car has struck
another car, which has in turn struck a third, Everyone will have seen. One
boy misses his brother horribly, misses the past, misses a time worth being
nostalgic over, a time that never existed, back when they set their sister's
playhouse on fire; the other boy avoids all mention of that time;
each of them is once the boy who enters the house alone, missing the other,
each is devoted and each callous, and each plays his part on the telephone,
over the course of months. Boys enter the house with fishing gear,
according to prearranged date and time, arguing about whether to use
lures or live bait, in order to meet their father for the fishing adventure,
after which boys enter the house again, almost immediately, with live bait,
having settled the question; boys boast of having caught fish in the past,
though no fish has ever been caught: Remember when the blues were
biting? Boys enter the house carrying their father, slumped. Happens so
fast. Boys rush into the house leading EMTs to the couch in the living room
where the body lies, boys enter the house, boys enter the house, boys enter
the house. Boys hold open the threshold, awesome threshold that has
welcomed them when they haven't even been able to welcome themselves,
that threshold which welcomed them when they had to be taken in, here is
its tarnished knocker, here is its euphonious bell, here's where die boys
had to sand die door down because it never would hang right in the frame,
here are the scuff marks from when boys were on the wrong side of the
door demanding, here's where there were once milk bottles for the
milkman, here's where the newspaper always landed, here's the mail slot,
here's the light on the front step, illuminated, here's where the boys are
standing, as that beloved man is carried out. Boys, no longer boys, exit.

Example # 12: Short Story, “The Room,” by William Trevor
“Do you know why you are doing this?” he asked, and Katharine
hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know.
Nine years had almost healed a soreness, each day made a little
easier, until the balm of work was taken from her and in her scratchy
idleness the healing ceased. She was here because of that, there was no
other reason she could think of, but she didn’t say it.

“And you?” she asked instead.

He was forthcoming, or sounded so; he’d been attracted by her at a
time when he’d brought loneliness upon himself by quarrelling once too
often with the wife who had borne his children and had cared for him.
“I’m sorry about the room,” he said.

His belongings were piled up, books an cardboard boxes, suitcases
open, not yet unpacked. A word processor had not been plugged in, its
flexes trailing on the floor. Clothes on hangers cluttered the back of the
door, an anatomical study of an elephant decorated one of the walls, with
arrows indicating where certain organs were beneath the leathery skin.
This gray picture wasn’t his, he’d said when Katharine asked; it came with
the room, which was all he had been able to find in a hurry. A sink was in
the same corner as a washbasin, an electric kettle and a gas ring on a shelf,
a green plastic curtain not drawn across.

“It’s all a bit more special now that you’re here,” he said.
When she got up to put on her clothes, Katharine could tell he didn’t
want her to go. Yet he, not she, was the one who had to; she could have
stayed all afternoon. Buttoning a sleeve of her dress, she remarked that at
least she knew now what it felt like to deceive.

Example # 13: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried
They carried P-38 can openers and heat tabs, watches and dog tags,
insect repellent, gum, cigarettes, Zippo lighters, salt tablets, compress
bandages, ponchos, Kool-Aid, two or three canteens of water, iodine
tablets, sterno, LRRP-rations, and C-rations stuffed in socks. They carried
standard fatigues, jungle fatigues, jungle boots, bush hats, flak jackets and
steel pots.

They carried the M-16, trip flares and Claymore mines,
M-60 machine guns, the M-79 grenade launcher, M-14's, CAR-15's,
Stoners, Swedish K's, 66mm LAWS, shotguns, .45 caliber pistols, silencers,
the sound of bullets, rockets, and choppers, and sometimes the sound of

They carried C-4 plastic explosives,
an assortment of hand grenades, PRC-25 radios with 25 foot whip
antennas and their heavy batteries, knives and machetes.

Some carried napalm, CBU's and large bombs; some risked their lives to
rescue others. Some escaped the fear, but dealt with the death and
damage. Some made very hard decisions, and some just tried to survive.
They carried malaria, dysentery, ringworms and leeches. They
carried the land itself as it hardened on their boots.

They carried stationery, pencils, and pictures of their loved ones -
real and imagined.

They carried love for people in the real world
and love for one another.

And sometimes they disguised that love:
"Don't mean nothin'!" They carried memories for the most part,
they carried themselves with poise and a kind of dignity. Now and then,
there were times when panic set in, and people squealed or wanted to, but
couldn't; when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their
heads and said "Dear God" and hugged the earth and fired their weapons
blindly and cringed and begged for the noise to stop
and went wild and made promises to themselves and God and their
parents, hoping not to die.

They carried the traditions of the United States military,
and memories and images of those who served before them.
They carried grief, terror, longing and their reputations.
They carried the soldier's greatest fear: the embarrassment of
They crawled into tunnels, walked point, and advanced under fire,
so as not to die of embarrassment.
They were afraid of dying, but too afraid to show it.
They carried the emotional baggage of men and women who might
die at any moment.
They carried the weight of the world, and the weight of every free
citizen of America.
And they carried each other.

Additional Point of View focus for further study:
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. First and last chapters are presented in
an unidentified first person, sandwiching in a third person point of view.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Differing points of view, one to a chapter.
Aunt Julia and the Script Writer by Mario Vargas Llosa. An adroit mixture
of multiple point of view and unreliable narrator.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig. An epic explosion of
conventional point of view, combining actual third person narrative with
segments of diaries, scrapbooks, and newspaper items, all of which
combine to produce a point of view.
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. An omnibus assortment of points of


Anonymous said...

Wow. You have been busy.

The Moody piece on boys was new to me. Having a son, I'm glad to have read it...if unsettled too.

Kate Lord Brown said...

'Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope' - what a great line.

Very interesting piece. How do you feel about multiple first person POVs? The second book has 15 POVs (homage to As I Lay Dying). I hope to call it 'The Space Between Us' - direct quote from Faulkner, and what I was aiming at ... but there was another book already titled this, so I don't know the etiquette? No feedback yet, so I don't know if it's worked ... just had to try. Returning to third person for book 3 feels safer (if less entertaining).

Rowena said...

POV is always my hardest decision. I don't know why. Maybe I spend too much time looking at things from other people's perspective to settle on one in my narratives.

My current novel started in third person, alternating narrative, but in revision, I've made it 3rd person limited from one character's perspective, but I still toy with the idea of making it straight up first person. I don't know why I can't just pick one and stick with it!