Tuesday, June 8, 2010

POV= Viewpoint

A student of mine just emailed and said, to wit, "I get it now! Point of view is viewpoint!"

She didn't meant this as a tautology. She meant that the narration (point of view) should reflect the viewpoint (the character's understanding and perception).


That is, POV is not just about voice and word choice and proximity (Sam is there to participate in the action of the scene, so Sam's the POV character). POV is about viewpoint, about how this particular person views the world and responds to it and other people. That is, POV means that Sam's narration of this scene (even if not in DEEP POV) is going to be different than anyone else's.

I'd like to take this a step further. You can tell FROM THE NARRATION more about the POV character's character.

There are many aspects of character that affect how this person will narrate POV passages. And if you get to know your character through and through, you probably just FEEL that he would not trust fate and that he likes to find problems to solve. But let me deal with one pretty universal aspect that I think profoundly affects the way a person will experience the world, and especially how he experiences new places and new situations.

That's social class, or more narrowly, outsider status. Now I know this is not something we deal with a lot in the United States, but I think that even now, when just about anyone can go to college and move from the laboring class to the professional class in a few years, class affects just about all of us. And it most specifically affects how we view the world: viewpoint. We aren't anywhere near as class-ridden as the Brits, I know. (I once had breakfast with a lovely couple from Bristol, and I asked how they determined someone's class, and she said matter-of-factly, "Well, I'm lower-middle, not working class, because my father worked in an office, but my husband is from a much posher family. His stepfather is a bishop's son!" I mean, that is gradation the likes of which we don't have... his stepfather is a bishop's son. I guess there's a specific rank for that. :) But it still matters, as anyone who has married out of class can attest. (I once had a workshop attendee say that this was a major source or marital conflict: "I think if you're in a family, you lend money when a relative has lost his job, and don't expect to get paid back. But my husband is straight from the middle class, and he thinks that we should all be self-reliant no matter what.")

Anyway, recently I came across how class might affect POV in a couple non-fiction books about the recent economic crisis. (I'm still trying to understand what happened, and it's really hard, because I can't even balance my checkbook... which I guess makes me one with Merrill-Lynch, huh?) One was a first-person account of a financial "quant" who figured out early that Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme. The other was a third-person (reportorial) account of the analysts who shorted the subprime mortgage mess, thereby setting themselves in opposition to the "establishment".

Actually, there's a third. Another book is a theoretically objective narration but it's almost entirely told from the perspective of the bankers (which tends to make it difficult to understand, as they seem to have no insight into the problems, which is telling, isn't it?). So to oversimplify:

Book 1: POV of outsider (quants) = skeptical, suspicious, defiant
Book 2: POV of opponents (short-sellers) = triumphant, opportunistic
Book 3: POV of insiders (bankers) = patronizing, cliquish

Now the "status" of the narrators dictates a lot, like the subject they choose and the approach. For example, the "quant" who broke the Madoff scheme presents this as a detective story with himself as the hero, and he plays up his heroism, his military service, the presumed threat to his life and the gun ownership that resulted. Very macho attitude.

But underlying this is the defensiveness that comes from his immigrant family's sense of being an outsider in their own land. I think also that he had that working-class suspicion of management coupled with the small business-owner's suspicion of labor. That is, he suspected just about everyone. He had no illusions about the loyalty or trustworthiness of anyone around him.

This informed his narration-- there was a lot of defensiveness, and one rather sad passage where he mentions proudly that he got to hobnob with the aristos (including, apparently, though he's cagey about this, Prince Charles)-- "But they would have lunch with me, but they never invited me to dinner." The class resentment was clear on every page. But understand, that wasn't just reflected in his attitude and what he chose to select and highlight, but also in the very story and his placement as the detective. Only an outsider could have suspected the man who was above suspicion. So his "viewpoint" of skepticism is as important as his "point of view" as the detective. He took an outsider's viewpoint, one informed not just with skepticism but with downright suspicion.

The short-sellers are also outsiders, but the two of them are really more pranksters. They are suburban guys, comfortable but bored with their middle-class situation. So they don't have any need to prove themselves (Gramps already did that part) or be a moral force. They're just having fun tweaking the system. This is all a game, one which results in amassing a huge fortune for them, but what really counts is they got to exploit the arcane rules and rituals to do it. There's a lot of rather adolescent chortling about how "two guys with an office in Mom's garage" beat the system. In fact, they resemble no one so much as the merry tricksters named Steve (Wozniak and Jobs) who started Apple in a garage. You get the idea that if they hadn't made a few hundred million shorting subprime CDOS, they'd be starting a video-game cheat website, or selling hacked DVDs on eBay-- anything to avoid getting a real job. :)

The insiders' (bankers') point of view is focused on a sort of "who's who, who's up/who's down" narration of events, about upper-class connections (these two went to Yale together, this banker bought that banker's flat, both of these two own Mercedes) and what will seem to most of us pretty trivial, like their titles and their hobbies. But that's viewpoint too, isn't it? I spent the whole book annoyed because I kept thinking, "They have no clue about context! They are clueless about the cause and effect of their actions!" But the bankers aren't really interested in explaining what went wrong (indeed, there's no indication they have any idea), or what it all means. They are, however, really interested in establishing who is superior to whom, and proving that they didn't do anything that everyone else didn't do. That is, while the quant and the shorts are always stressing their non-conformity, the bankers always stress their conformity. It's okay to make a mistake as long as everyone else makes it too.

So when I think of "markers of viewpoint"-- some signal event that shows this person's viewpoint-- here's what I remember:
The quant wants to prove that he's right and the only one in the world who's right, but he wants the world to eventually acknowledge this. So instead of taking the information he's acquired (as the shorts do) and using it to make money, he keeps sending reports to the Feds and the regulators and the media (and getting ignored, but still trying). He wants to be acknowledged as smarter than anyone else. So one event that shows this is his meticulous preparation of a report and presentation of this to the SEC, and his fury and despair when it's ignored.

The shorts, however, have no defensiveness, and they don't have a lot of fear either. So a signal event that shows their viewpoint is when they crash a convention of bankers even though (of course) they haven't paid for admission. They go undercover, eavesdropping to learn more about the business they hope to short. Their approach is lighthearted, almost playful. They don't have a big moral quandary about deceiving people, or a sense (as the quant has) that there's an ethical responsibility to bring the crooks to justice. And they don't care about being recognized as the smartest guys in the room. It's enough to win the game-- they don't need the laurel crowns and gold medals of victory.

This is not a moral situation for the bankers either-- unless the moral of the story is "them that has sure expects to get". These bankers have no shame, shall we say. Maybe you or I would, if we'd screwed up enough to bring the world's economy to its knees, if our mistakes showed that we are really bad at our jobs, if the problems we caused show our ideology to be flawed, well, we might shrink away and decide to work in a homeless shelter as expiation of our guilt. But that's because we can feel guilt. :) These bankers just feel... entitled, to all they have and more. So a signal event that shows that viewpoint is when one bank CEO pretty much runs a century-old bank into the ground, and is forced to merge his company with a more solvent bank. So the CEO of the acquiring bank can't bring himself to fire the guy, appointing him co-president of the new company with another executive. The banker isn't grateful to have a job and avoid jailtime-- he's offended at the idea that he should share "his" title. That sort of unremitting arrogance is infuriating, of course, but it's what makes him successful-- well, rich, anyway. He feels entitled.

So... the viewpoints here lead to very different narrations though the events are similar. The quant's narration has a defensive, meticulous assemblage of evidence, as if he's anticipating resistance and argument. The shorts' narration is quirky, focusing on the humorous aspects of this set of events. The bankers' narration is plodding, without the context that would result from self-reflection, but with lots and lots of name-dropping as if to prove that who you know is more important than what you know.

Whenever you're wondering what point of view means for your story, imagine that this set of events was being narrated by different parties involved-- the antagonist, the outsider, the insider, the trickster. What events would each select? What tone would each take? How much and what sort of detail would each provide? And especially how would each's viewpoint-- the point from which he/she views the events-- affect the point of view?

Have you ever read "same event/different POV" stories? I'm thinking of that clever children's story, the Three Little Pigs told from the wolf's POV.



Martina Boone said...

Terrific, informative post! I love the switched point-of-view picture books such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. It seems easy enough, but you're right in that you have to see the world the way a certain character would. It's never as easy as right and wrong or black and white. Can we link this for our Friday blog round-up? It's excellent!

Thank you!

Edittorrent said...

Certainly you can link to it! Let us know!

And thanks for the little pigs note. I remember my kids read that in school and just howled at it because it was so true, and such a good illustration that the story varies depending on the viewpoint!

Miss Sharp said...

Late to the party here but just wanted to thank you for this awesome and entertaining post!

Do you have a degree in psychology or just a natural bent for analyzing the inner workings of the beast?

Edittorrent said...

You know, it's funny, because when I was in grad school (just English!), I took several psych courses, and my abnormal psych professor loved my paper about sociopaths and asked if I were a parole officer or someone who worked with offenders. I said, "No, I'm a writer, and I have villains!"
He thought that was funny, that I made up bad guys. He thought there were enough real ones out there!

I heard some psychologist on the radio, and he said that few sociopaths were violent-- "You'll find most of them in the boardrooms of big corporations!" I thought that was really interesting. What's a sociopath like, if he/she's not violent? Still uncaring about the human costs of action. Destroying the world economy? Cool!