Saturday, January 26, 2013

First Person uncertainty

Recently a writer said that the good thing about first person was that you get to tell the truth. And I-- never one to let a categorical statement stand categorically-- riposted that it all depends, as it's the character's understanding of the truth, which might or might not be true.

I came across an example of this in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which is in first-person. The issue here isn't whether the POV character is deliberately or subconsciously distorting the truth, but one of certainty-- she doesn't know to a certainty:
My sight lines weren't good, but I thought his hands were shaking.

That is, she's confessing that she doesn't really know because of "the sight lines", but she's reporting what she thinks she sees. Of course, two considerations here:
First, the narrator WANTS his hands to be shaking, that is, that he's evincing nervousness at being close to her. (She wants to think he's attracted to her.) So her perception might be less than accurate, just because she wants it to be so.
Second, one step removed-- the author put this in there. If there was no relevance, if it didn't matter, then the author wouldn't have bothered. We as readers generally assume that whatever is narrated has some importance, whether or not that's the fact. And the author knows we'll think this is important, and so decides whether or not to include this based on whether or not  he/she thinks it's worth getting the reader excited about these shaking hands.

So let's assume McEwan chose to put this in there because it had some (albeit perhaps slight) meaning. What are we to make of it? Is it actually true (the character's hands really are shaking)? Or is what he wants us to get is that the young lady watching wants him to be nervous, thereby showing us that she really does like him (despite her recent rejection of him)?
That is, is the "importance" the event (hands shaking) or the POV's perception (her thinking that his hands are shaking)?  The fun of this is, of course, that we don't need to determine that at this point in the narrative. We can wait to find out if he's really that affected by being near her, or if she's just hoping that he is.

Now think about how differently that simple observation would be rendered in the more common form of third-person. There would be no doubt, because ordinary third-person narrates what's happening.
His hands were shaking.

We wouldn't need the line about the sight lines, because this would be a narration of the action of the scene, not the narration from her perspective about what she's thinking as the scene plays out. In ordinary third-person, we are given no reason to doubt the truth of the narration. Clearly this is the POV of choice if you just want the reader focusing on what's happening, if you don't want them wasting time doubting or speculating. His hands were shaking. Nuff said.

But what about Deep Third POV, which is cognitively much more akin to first-person, in that narration is completely through the perspective of a character (though with third person pronouns -- he/she)?
In that case, the perspective-limiting observation (sight lines) and the doubt would probably be preserved.
Serena's sight lines weren't good, but she thought his hands were shaking.

A deep third narration is no more certain than a first-person narration-- both are colored and perhaps distorted by the limitations, desires, and biases of the POV character.

So, short work of it:
If you don't want the reader speculating, common third is your best choice. This would be more useful in plot-driven books, where the characters' inner workings and doubts aren't that important.
If you want the reader speculating and doubting if the character POV is transparent and accurate, use first-person or deep third. That is more appropriate for character-driven books.

Examples? I'd love to start collecting some examples.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps related. In first person, mostly you have to stick to things your narrator actually was sensing AND noticing at the time. Thus the infamous bit on the first page where she looks into a mirror so you can tell the reader what color hair she has. (This was even used in tight third in THE MAN FROM ST PETERSBURG; the agent had to contemplate his image in the dark window of the train as he was proceeding on a mission.)

In third, you can pan back a bit from the tightness to openly tell basic things the character knows but is not focused on at that moment.

"Sure, Dad, I'll go right over there."

Blue-eyed, 18 year old Nancy Drew hopped into her blue roadster and drove off, her mind full of the latest mystery.

Otoh, in first person, with a little memoir-style hindsight the narrator can tell anything she wants to, in any order, whether or not she noticed it at the time (or EVER saw it first hand).

Third can roam in space, first can roam in time.


Edittorrent said...

Good observation! "Roaming" is a real benefit to fictional narration.

Anonymous said...

Of course Omni can wander in time and space, both. At the beginning of THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW, the (chatty) narrator says something like, 'This happened at the same time the Bastables were searching for treasure elsewhere in London.'


Wes said...

I enjoy uncertainty or an unreliable narrator regardless because it prompts the reader to evaluate if the POV is accurate or not. And isn't that the way of life? Do we really see things as they truly are?

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a series book by a well known author that is told in third person limited. Throughout the story, we never go too far into a characters thoughts or feelings.

For instance, in one poignant scene, a bastard brother visits his half brother who was pushed from a wall and now survives as a cripple. The mother, lady of the castle, tells the bastard as he is leaving that she wishes it was him instead of her son. The only thought the bastard has was that he should not have stopped to listen to her. There has been no other thoughts or mentions of this scene throughout the next 800 page that I have read so far. This has slightly frustrated me as a reader.

As I was reading last night, the following line jumped out at me (mainly because I had read this article a couple days before): "his eyes were pale an watery and he could not seem to stop blinking, but perhaps that wa only the light." Third person limited

A few paragraphs below that, I ran across this sentence: "yet it was not the sword that made Ser Cleos Frey anxious; it was the beast." This line sounds more omniscient to me than third person, mainly because it is a statement of fact than of opinion.

As a reader, I prefer to read book that are third person limited. My leas favorite narration is first person.

(Please excuse any strange grammar or autocorrects. Once I type into the comment box, my phone won't let me navigate bak to make any changes)
Anon in MS

Edittorrent said...

Anon, I also notice that in that more removed POV, there's the assumption that the reader can figure out what is being left out. Some authors (me, for example!) tend to tell maybe more than is needed.