Monday, July 25, 2011

A mid-distance point of view

Happy Monday, everyone!

I've seen discussions about distance in point of view on some blogs, and I've also heard some of my past writing teachers talk about it. They might say, for example, that a story is written from a close third person point of view. Something like this:

Ana didn't like to have soup with dinner. The hot and insubstantial liquid always took up too much space in her belly, as if the hostess (or host, in the case of David Harvey's Sunday dinners in Tempee) were trying to ensure that she wouldn't ask for a second helping of any other course...not that she would; she had too much pride to ask for seconds, just as she had too much pride ask for anything.

Even thought the narrator of this passage isn't Ana, we are still provided with information about Ana's thoughts and feelings.

This contrasts with a more distant third person point of view:

Ana always rolled her eyes when the host or hostess served soup for dinner. While the other guests ate, she would sit in front of her steaming bowl and wait, not even bothering to dip her spoon into the hot liquid.

Here we're further away from Ana, learning about her by watching her, as if through a movie camera.

Yat-Yee Chong talks a little bit about distance in this blog post as well.

I felt fairly aware of this difference between close and distant points of view, but as I was reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne this weekend, I noticed a more unusual distance, something that was sort of in between close and distant:

In this passage the narrator is describing why Hester Prynne, the book's protagonist, did not leave the town that had just punished her for taking part in a crime.

[I]t may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color of their lifetime...It might be, too,--doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole,--it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution.

In this passage (shortened substantially to showcase the point), I thought it was really interesting the way Hawthorne created a bit of uncertainty in Hester's actions. As the creator of the book, Hawthorne could have been more definitive. Instead, he chooses to delve into the gray area of Hester's mind, not too close and not too far away, a technique that makes her seem much more human to me.

I haven't ever experimented with this mid-distance point of view before, but it makes me want to try. Have you ever used an unusual distance in your point of view? How do decide which distance you'll use?


  1. I don't think I have used an unusual distance point of view, but I think something about Hawthorne's style is what I may have done when I wanted to be more subtle in revealing something about a character. I really like the example you show here. It works.
    As a reader I tend to prefer a certain psychological closeness to the character. In other words, when the writer becomes too subtle, I don't get so connected to the character.

  2. I am definitely a close third person pov writer, but I see the genius in this. There is some sense of command or authority or something that I can't quite articulate on the fly here that comes through.

    In close third person, you can only express the level of self-awareness the character actually possesses. You cannot point out where she has misapprehended her siutation or the people around her or, most importantly, herself.

    It's interesting that in this case it makes Hester seem more human to you. I have to think about that.

  3. What you've got there is an example of "free indirect style," which mixes both a character's speech (and thoughts) and the narrator's comments. The style sort of does ride in between the distant "camera" third-person and the "close" third-person that follows a single character through the narrative. The thing about free indirect style is that the narrative distance isn't set; it's free to move closer or farther away from the characters as the narrator chooses and there's no clear line between narration, the narrator's voice and the voices and thoughts of the characters. Which is why I use this style almost exclusively these days.

  4. It seems to me Hawthorne used omniscient style. A narrator or outside voice that can dip into anyone's thoughts and feelings because, hey, they're omniscient and know what everyone is thinking. I like writing in omniscient but I always get slaughtered when it gets critiqued.

  5. Julia, Hawthorne's style is much more unusual than I had expected it to be. I read The Scarlet Letter several years ago, but it was long before I became a writer myself. I didn't pay attention to technique my first time around. In my own writing, some of my stories can be quite distant, which has been criticized by some people.

    j a zobair, I don't feel like I can quite articulate it either. What makes Hester seem more human to me in this passage is the fact that we get a sense of what she might be repressing in herself. I feel like we get inside her thoughts as well as another layer that represents what her therapist might know about her!

    scott, Tolstoy takes on the characters' voices and thoughts in much of his prose, and I've understood that in his work more clearly and was able to experiment with it myself. Hawthorne's indeed doing a similar thing, but it's more intricate to me and something that I want to explore.

    S.P., People have criticized me for using an omniscient point of view in the past. I ignore them, and I hope you do too. The omniscient POV is awesome and you are awesome.

  6. Yeah, people like Hawthorne (and who else? Maybe Virgina Woolf and Henry James and Gunter Grass and D.H. Lawrence) throw sand in your eyes, muddy the waters and use very specific language to open up possibilities rather than to narrow them, which I agree makes the characters seem more human because they become more wholly unknowable, just like real folks. I think the genius in stuff like this is that the writer himself admits that he doesn't know everything and he opens up those cracks in his knowledge and shows them to you in all his ignorance. A lot of it, too, seems to be in Hawthorne's language: ghosts, serpents in holes, the end of time, et cetera.

  7. Scott, this is an excellent point: "I think the genius in stuff like this is that the writer himself admits that he doesn't know everything and he opens up those cracks in his knowledge and shows them to you in all his ignorance."

  8. "Write what you know you don't know."

  9. I really haven't experimented with distance. I try to always keep it close. I haven't even thought about changing that up, actually, but I can see how there could be some benefits from that. Interesting post!

    Though, Hawthorne's style is more a showcase of that time period, isn't it? I've never read that book, though it's on my to-read day. Too many good reads out there!

  10. Davin, interesting point about the therapist-like insights. I was thinking of a charactier in my novel who DOES seriously and almost fatally misunderstand her situation (and how writing in her pov was actually a very cool experience).

    When you said more human, my initial reaction was that, for me, a character who telegraphs all of her brokenness with no filter or analysis seems more human. As though the filter pushes the reader away, not towards. That's why I said I needed to think about it. So your comment helped!

    And now I'm thinking of how this ties into my post on how much to explain.. :)

  11. I like the omniscient point of view as long as the narrator gets close to the characters. It can be a really powerful one to connect with the characters.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.