The Point-of-View Nazis return, bigger and badder than ever

I was thinking about all of you at a film festival earlier today, during a short film showcase. (Yes, it was kind of arty film fest where one sees experimental shorts. I like to keep up with a wide variety of artistic expression.) In a documentary called Absolute Zero, a man freezes to death in what he believes to be a refrigerated (it isn’t) railway car. Trapped, with no prospect of escape, he documented his sensations while yielding to apparently psychosomatic hypothermia by writing on the car’s walls at periodic intervals. After it finished, I leaned over to my date and whispered, “Now THAT’s an active protagonist!”

See? It can be done.

Actually, I’m posting significantly later tonight than usual, because I found I was too disturbed in the wake of one of the evening’s full-length films to be either funny or objective before the dead of night arrived. The culprit: quite the creepiest film about stalking EVER, a little flick called For Love and Stacie. Not my usual fare (or even my preferred narrative style), but cleverly done and very thought-provoking.

Let’s just say that the protagonist was very active indeed, and leave it at that.

I had planned to launch into the burning issue of juggling multiple protagonists today, but all of the control issues of that film must have seeped into my consciousness: I had written only a few paragraphs before I noticed that I had already used the term “Point-of-View Nazi” in passing twice. Rather than making those of you new to this site guess what this means, I thought I might go the wacky route of spending today’s post defining it, and THEN use it in later discussion.

Hey, if you’d seen these films, you would need a little distraction, too.

So who is the Point-of-View Nazi, and how can he harm those of you who favor, say, the use of multiple protagonists?

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — most often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her (usually his) thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

In other words, the POVN is the Millicent who automatically throws up her hands over multiple protagonist narration REGARDLESS OF HOW WELL IT IS DONE. And while this ilk of screener has been less prominent in recent years than formerly, those of you who play interesting experiments with narrative voice definitely need to know of her existence.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with tight third person narration focused upon a single character, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN positively mad with rage.

Okay, not I’m-gonna-cause-some-mayhem mad, but certainly I’m-gonna-reject-this-manuscript mad.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you how to write your book. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed, please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing.

It should be stamped out, he feels — by statute, if necessary. And definitely by rejection letter.

So much for most of the fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good professional reader who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems.

Think about it: if a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

No matter what perspective you have chosen for your book, it would behoove you to give it a once-over, checking for this species of slip; it drives those of us who read manuscripts for a living batty.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it.

They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22!

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a legitimate stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. My primary criteria for judging voice is whether a writer’s individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting a manuscript outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

Again, call me zany.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant.

(Fortunately, and probably not entirely coincidentally, she already had an agent when she wrote it, so she did not have to subject that stylistic choice to the vagaries of Millicent and her ilk.)

I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forefend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen. Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. (And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated thinkers rather than doers. The kind of people who might, say, have the time and resources to go through a low-residency MFA program. Astonishing coincidence, eh? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the POVN’s teachers were also the ones who kept barking, “Write what you know!” could it?)

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are EXACTLY as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization (if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context).

The result is a whole lot of submissions that just beg the question, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Tomorrow, I shall, I suspect, take issue with this, after the effects of that disturbing film (which was, I now realize, very much a single-perspective view) have won off a little. Be safe, everybody, and keep up the good work!

12 Replies to “The Point-of-View Nazis return, bigger and badder than ever”

  1. I have a couple of experiences with POVN. The writing community lately is so stuck on close third that even when the narrator’s voice FEELS omniscient they won’t accept the occassional, well, omniscience. I actually just bought a story for my magazine that is mostly close third with a few omniscient observations thrown in. In this case, it worked amazingly well. The writer is quite skilled, though.

    I’m also writing a series of books told from the POV of twin guys. I was told once, early on, to pick a protag and stick with him. To which I repsonded:

    They’re identical twins. Which one am I supposed to pick??

    I’m enjoying your site–sent over her by way of Bernita.

    1. Good for you, Betsy, for bucking the trend! I’ve seen too many good writers change their legitimate and apt choices because a POVN barked at them, when really it’s a matter of fashion.

      I would think that you could get quite a bit of REALLY interesting mileage from the differing perspectives of identical twins. I hope you kept both!

      Glad to have you here!

      And thank you, Bernita, for sending people my way! Amen to your blog post about reading archives. I live in fear of boring my long-term readers by repeating particular subject matter too often, so I really do hope that new readers will do a bit of back reading. I keep adding new categories all the time, to encourage it.

  2. If the POVN is an agent or editor, this might be the sort of person you don’t want to be working with in the first place. If someone is going to be that closed about issues of style, that’s not a good thing.


    1. That’s the spirit, Chris! It’s SO important to learn to recognize the difference between being rejected out of hand based upon preconceived notions and being rejected for one’s WRITING. The first actually isn’t a meaningful rejection; it’s just a sign to take your work elsewhere.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The story I’m working on has multiple protags and everywhere I turn I’m being told “No! Don’t do it.” So, thanks. What relief.

  4. In case anyone has been wondering, I’m still around. Just haven’t had the gumption or specific mindset to comment for a while.
    I’m not sure if it was as a result of POVN influence earlier in my life, but I did set out to write my story in the third person singular viewpoint style. I’ve adhered to this for the most part, trying to let the actions and statements of the other characters indicate their thoughts. However, in certain situations I found it difficult and unwieldy to do so. Then it was much more convenient to slip slightly from the “party-line” and vary the point of view perspective a little.
    Likewise, well into the second story, I ended up using a word I had promised myself I would never use in this planned series of books. However, the protagonist at this point has had it “up to here,” and uncharacteristically utters the “forbidden” word.
    (Anne, I remember the example you’ve used before from Jane Austen, wherein the viewpoint changes several times within a single paragraph. Or was it a single sentence?


    1. I HAD been wondering what had happened to you, Dave! But great minds think alike: I’m using the passage you remember in Wednesday’s post, because it does (I think) illustrate the issue so very well.

      All part of my clever segue into talking about perpective flexibility on Thursday — as you say, there are moments when being willing to allow for the possibility of omniscience can save PAGES of alternate explanation. So I’m looking forward to your insights.

      It honestly does take courage to break one’s own hard-and-fast rules, doesn’t it?

  5. I just read a book that was passed on to me and is a good example for the discussion: Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. She has seven POV characters (yes, seven!) All are main characters. Each character switch is heralded by a new chapter, and all are told in first person present tense (no easy task!). She’s not an author I would pick up on my own, and I was a bit put off at first by the continually changing perspective, but I was soon sucked in to the story. apparently she pulled it off okay because the book is a New York Times bestseller and won some awards. Anyway, worth a look if you’re working with multiple POV’s, and proof that you don’t have to follow the narrow path.

    1. And Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, too — a first person plural narrator whose characteristics we never really learn (beyond generalities), and whose five protagonists are the girls down the block! Drove me nuts editorially, but still, a brilliant experiment in the creative use of protagonist and voice choices.

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