Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deep POV myth #1

I was asked whether the writer can use the character's name when deep in his POV, especially if there are two men in the scene (you know, the infamous "two he's" problem we've talked about before). In other words, is the "rule" that says the POV character doesn't think his own name apply even in complicated sentences with two people of the same gender? That is, can we use the POV character's name to distinguish him from the other male character, like:

Danny handed his friend the controller, feeling a bit of triumph at his high score. Even the principal, who thought videogames were the tools of the devil, would be impressed if Danny won the big videogame match. But he had to beat Tyler here first!

Well, you know me and rules. Tools, not rules! Deep POV is not a set of rules, but a mindset that allows the writer to write from within the character, in the character's own voice. But... but you're still writing. That is, no matter how closely you try to replicate the character's inside experience, you're doing this with words. And therein lies the issue.

Okay, here's my question. If you ignore any supposed rules about what deep POV is supposed to require, and concentrate just what I said, drawing the reader into the experience of being that character, what do you think works?

See, the character Danny knows who he himself is. When he's thinking of himself, he doesn't have to use his name because, well, he doesn't think "he" is anyone but himself. To the extent that he thinks in language at all, rather than just has consciousness of "me vs. other," he'd think "I", right? He wouldn't even think "he".

But the reader isn't him, and this isn't first-person. So already you're imposing a different experience on the reader, and it doesn't help much to say, "Well, he wouldn't think of himself by name," because he wouldn't think of himself as "he" either. He wouldn't think, "I'm not Tyler!" because, well, he already knows that.

The reader already is making an allowance-- has to make an allowance-- for certain conventions of narrative, and the first is... this is all done in words, when, in fact, experience has very little to do with words. We have only language to convey everything in the world of the book-- how the snow sounds when you walk on it, and how the moonlight glints off her hair, and what it feels like to realize your lover is cheating on you. That's it-- but we really can convey it all in words, enough so that for several thousand years, written language (and spoken language for much longer) has been the dominant way of conveying and recording experience. Right? Right.

Okay. Given all that-- given that we convey experience using words, how do we convey what it's like to be Danny? Well, the first thing is acknowledge that "Danny" is who he is. That name is a construct, of course, but it's a construct that conveys everything about who he is. Everything that is Danny is symbolized by the name Danny. When one of his friends tells the tale of how they almost got arrested but Danny got them out of it, he says, "But that's Danny. Silver-tongued. He could talk the devil into converting to Catholicism." When Danny tells his mother that he's working 20 hours a day, she sighs, "Oh, Danny, you're just like your granddaddy, and he died of a massive heart attack when he was 40."

That is, Danny IS Danny. The reader knows him as Danny. If we're lucky, the reader can even, for a short time, BE Danny. But Danny is Danny, and there's no shame in that. Use the name. Of course. "Danny" is at least as much of who he is than "he" is. In fact, I bet he thinks of himself as Danny a lot more than he thinks of himself as "he"-- "Well, Danny, my boy, you've really gone and cocked it up this time."

Now given that this is third person, so there's not that easy distinction of first person ("I" and "everyone else"), and that the reader expects a certain level of narrative conventionality (that this is all in language, that it's in past tense even though to Danny it's happening right now, that Danny has to think of himself as "he"), the question is: What will give the reader the experience you want?

What will let the reader "sit in" the character?

What brings the reader out of the character first thing, immediately, automatically, is confusion. As soon as the reader has one jot of confusion that the character doesn't feel, one moment of not knowing what the narrator means, that's it. There goes the deep identification. "I'm not that person! I'm me, the reader, and I don't know what the heck is going on!" It takes only a second, and you've interfered with the reader's deep identification with the character.

What confuses the reader? Well, Danny knows who he is. He knows his achievement is something the principal would disapprove. He knows he feels a moment's triumph. He knows he got a high score. See what I mean? You have him think that "out loud," in words, though of course he already knows that. There's no other way to let the reader in on his thoughts and knowledge than to just say it in words.

Now why is only one word in all the world -- his name-- barred from use in conveying what Danny knows?

It's a fake rule, frankly. It's illogical that everything else-- the whole world, his whole consciousness, his whole being-- is conveyed in words, but you can't convey, "This is Danny, and this is the other guy," in the simple shorthand way of USING THEIR NAMES?

You can. When they invent some USB cable that truly lets us be inside another person's experience, maybe we won't need words. But we do. And we're writers, and we should love words. :)

Anyway, the worst danger in deep POV is to eject the reader from the experience. Trust me here-- the reader will NOT be ejected by the mere sight of Danny's name. She won't think, "Wait a minute! Danny called himself Danny, and that means-- while him calling himself 'he' didn't-- that I am not him!! Oh, my gosh! I'm not named Danny! I'm not even a man! I'm not living in the Cotswalds! I'm out of here!" The reader won't even notice. (You can, of course, do it maladroitly enough that the reader notices, like use the name 24 times in 24 lines, yes, but you're not doing that. :)

But what WILL eject the reader from the experience is confusion. If the reader for one second doesn't know what's going on (and the character presumably does), then the bond is broken. So it's much, much, much more important to create a smooth identification experience, a protected space of connection, a cocoon of consciousness, where the reader can trustingly BE, and BE IN the character.

So-- long long answer. Yes, use the name when the reader needs it. Why not? It's far more important that there is no "bump" of "huh? Who is that?" that reminds her, as "Which he is this?" will do, that she is not he.

This is hard. Don't make it harder by denying yourself the character's name. We need more words, not fewer, to help us create this fictive experience for the reader.

Sorry to go on so long, but "you can't use his name" is #1 Deep POV Myth. :)


Ian said...

Alicia, this has been an ongoing problem for me in my current piece. At my agent's request, I'm converting a manuscript written in first person to third person. It's compounded because nearly all the main characters are male so I'm having to make a lot of text flow changes to keep the narrative comprehensible.

I'm using names a lot. LOL

Edittorrent said...

Now you have a good semiotic reason! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alicia. That's a good rule too - make sure the reader is never ever confused :)

Vonna said...

Thanks for going on so long! Really, we need informed opinions on these matters. Writing is a joy, but navigating myths and rules can be frustrating.

Jami Gold said...

Thanks for breaking it down so clearly: Confusion is worse than any other supposed 'rule' for ejecting the reader from the experience.

I've heard that this confusion issue is why so many prologues don't work as well. The author tries to create story questions with their prologue but actually just creates confusion.

Oh, my last sentence reminded me... Could you maybe address how to deal with overused words. I see two different problems with this in my own writing. I tend to throw in "just" all over the place - so in that situation, how do you judge when it's needed and adding something to the reader's understanding and when it can be cut. And secondly, I wonder how much is too much for words like "eyes", "looked", "turned", etc. - at what point will it stand out and look amateurish. :)

Jami G.

Anita Clenney said...

Thank you again, Alicia. This has really been a lifesaver for me. Love your blog.


Shelley Sly said...

Thank you for this post. When I write in third person and have two same-gender characters in a scene, I'm often afraid of insulting my readers' intelligence by stating their names over and over. Thanks for the insight in this post, I'm glad to see examples where this works.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Really informative post, Alicia! I've been attempting to learn alot about POV lately and this helped.

Wes said...

Thanks. This helps a lot. Up until now, I've been having my MC refer to himself by some aspect of his character. Since he is a young kid fresh off a farm, he might think something in deep POV such as "how is a farm boy supposed to act in" such and such situation.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, that's an interesting way to do it. And I think self-deprecation will make it sound more authentic, weirdly.

Shelley, yeah, re-using the name a lot does kind of give that salesman sense: "Alicia, I know that you love your children. So you want the best for them, don't you, Alicia? And Alicia, there's no doubt that these encyclopedias...."

Maybe that's a good reason to underuse the name when there's no need for it, so that it hasn't gotten really annoying when you really do need to use it?
Alicia (see, aren't you sick of my name? :)

Theresa Milstein said...

Luckily, I was ignorant about this myth, so I haven't had this problem. I have come across sections with a she said, she said problem, and tried my best to make those parts clear.

Pauline Allan said...

I just finished a scene between two male characters last night and struggled with this very thing. I will go back through and skim to re-write in some spots. I'm happy to hear that I can still use the POV's name. I was getting confused myself. Thanks for the great article.

C.L. Gray said...

I have a question. I have a character that is illiterate and rough speaking. I would like to make his interior monologue rough speaking as well.

Would that be distracting?

Sylvia said...

I love it when you step us through the argument like this.

Dave Shaw said...

I should think that interior monologue for a character should always be in the character's own voice, otherwise that would be distracting. Maybe there are people who sound different inside their heads than they do on the outside, but there'd have to be some sort of explanation if that was in a story, even if it's left for the reader to guess at rather than explicitly stated. Just my opinion, of course.