Monday, November 3, 2008

Being There

The first-person point of view is a tempting one, particularly for the control freak writer who sees it as a means of perpetuating control over the characters (as opposed to delegating to them the responsibility of being themselves) but as the first-person narrative gains traction and the characters gain the sense of how they feel about one another, about themselves, and about their intentions, a number of pigeons come home to roost. The first-person narrator must either appear in every scene or find some other plausible way to know what took place when he was off stage, all this in the name of plausibility. This very problem was recognized early in the game, leading to the introduction of partners, buddies, individuals with whom the main character could share opinions and gain information.

Another pigeon the first-person narrator has to deal with is an effective means of demonstrating--repeat, demonstrating--emotions; it is not enough to say "I was frightened," or "I was hungry." Such states must be conveyed to the reader in gestures, dialogue, and other responses involving the senses as well as the intellect and the ability to perceive.

Yet another homeward bound pigeon is the narrator's ability to convey sufficient vulnerability to cause the reader to feel concern for his welfare.

To be sure, there are more, but the purpose here is not to elaborate them, it is to show that in order to be effective, the writer has no where to hide; the writer must face and draw energy from the conditions and situations to be heaped upon the characters in expectation that they will seem plausible to the reader.

There are certain situations where, for instance, a person hired as a maid will refuse to do washing and ironing; a cook will "not do" hamburgers, an auto mechanic will only service German-made cars, and so the list of potential "only" and "don't" expands. We ourselves may not do certain things, or only do certain other. When we become writers, there is nothing we don't or can't do. Somewhere within us is a memory of a feeling that can be expanded, expedited, used to convey the very thing we as mere mortals won't or can't or don't do.

Somewhere in the game, it has come to us, perhaps as a whisper or suggestion easily shrugged away: we have given up on the passivity of reading for pleasure, taking up instead the active participation of being all the characters in the stories, memoirs, histories, and speculations we read. We are the characters we read--unless, of course, the author has managed to keep us at a distance. Even so, we persist.

Jerry Friedman, whose novels I've been privileged to look at editorially, recounts his early days in television, having had to drive about West LA and Santa Monica and Hollywood for early two weeks, accompanying the gifted actor, Peter Falk, who had to find in thrift stores the raincoat and hat and baggy pants that allowed him to be Colombo rather than Peter Falk. It is no accident that the characters in Jerry's novels have that epic aura of life of their own rather than being mere adjuncts of him. We need to be all our characters, shifting from one to another in each scene, quick-change artists of the highest order. We find in ourselves something to give them that makes them come to their own life. Cloning may be exciting for scientists but unless the clones have some unanticipated agenda to drive them, they are mere albatrosses about the neck of the characters they represent.

Brendel's Chopin is notably different from Polini's Chopin, which in turn is markedly different from Mitsuko Uchida's Chopin. The same calculus obtains with our attending operas which, with the exception of Puccini, have relatively dumb stories, but we don;t go for the stories, we go for the voices of the men and women who become the characters in the dumb stories.

Do something nice or awful or seemingly fated to your characters; give them the opportunity to live and thrive, to surprise and frighten you as they gather momentum in the pursuit of their agendas and their intentions. George W. Bush was simply another yahoo out of Connecticut on his way to Texas before he smashed up his father's car, only this time it wasn't a car, it was us and a country.


Rowena said...

I have been reading your blog and marta's blog for a while and I have to say, you have both helped me develop my novel. It was after reading your entry on POV that I finally chose a POV that felt right-- 1st person, from the perspective of many years down the line and some wisdom on the events portrayed. I am still struggling with my tendency to do too much exposition and navel gazing, but have hope that with the distance the past tense gives, I can find the right balance.

It's taken me 3 years to discover a POV I feel excited about.

Plus, I have taken your advice to withhold and muck with their lives to heart and turned my MC's older sister into a villain, although a redeemable one, instead of the ally she was before.

I think it might be the salvation of my book.

lowenkopf said...

If you use the same process you write about with reference to your drawing and painting, allowing yourself to go where it takes you, the results will show.

I so enjoy your notes to the why and wherefore of your art.

Anonymous said...

I've never felt compelled to write a novel in the first person. That horrible I pronoun hangs around enough as it is.