POV and Sins Worth Risking

So I mentioned recently having, er, “finished” work on my story “Ten Spikes and a Hammer.” Which is a story about a man, following two timelines in his life: one during his days towards the end of World War II, and another towards the end of his life. The interesting thing is that something, something, just wasn’t working with this story. I worked it, I worked it some more, I massaged, I fiddled, and somehow there was something wrong.

Part of it was the fact that this character is, at the same time, a fairly sympathetic character in a really difficult situation that makes him act (or, rather, speak) like a jerk, and partly the fact that his war experiences and his postwar experiences have conspired to make him, well, complex in terms of his thinking about race. Which, when you’ve got the whole story told from this individual’s point of view (POV), can present challenges in developing some character sympathy. This is a guy who was born in 1926, who went to war against Japan — a war that lasted significantly longer in his world than it did in ours — and which had some scary long-term consequences. (Something along the lines of Japan having come up with a form of geomantic warfare comparable to atom bombs, and the West having to scurry along to catch up and take on Japan.)

So anyway, this character of mine comes off as a racist. Hell, in certain ways he is a racist, though one of those who is mostly talk, and who actually will give people more of a chance than you might think. But the fact that he makes free with words like “chink” and “gook” (in describing Chinese and Korean allies working with him against Japan) and “Jap,” “Nip,” and “riceball” (for the Japanese enemy, and for any Japanese he meets after the war) surely makes him naturally unsympathetic from a more, er, “enlightened” point of view.

Point of view, I decided, was the problem. Jim Benson needed an intermediary, someone who could display the man’s faults, but also softly nudge into view why he has them, and, yes, they’re faults, but they’re human faults. Do I sympathize with a man who calls Chinese “chinks”? Well, that’s a nasty word to throw around, but it’s not the whole picture. (Just like how people who mutter about “waegukin” when I walk into a place aren’t necessarily racist bastards; they’re thinking racially, yeah, but are they judging me, hating me for that data point? If they are, it comes out in how they act.

(I’m not trying to play apologist for racist speech. I’m just saying people are complex, they can have certain received attitudes that affect how they speak, while underneath it behaving in ways that contradict your expectations. I’ve talked about this in terms of people I’ve known.)

Anyway, so I reworked the story in terms of POV. But there was more to it than that: I found, when I started rewriting it in 3rd person, I wasn’t really inclined to stick with a limited 3rd person stuck close to Jim’s consciousness. Rather, I found that it was almost more natural to drift, slowly, into other points of view of people around him, especially in the scenes where he’s older and struggling with a world that sees things differently from how he does. So there’s a certain degree of drifting there. I need to give the story another look, at some time in the near-ish future, to see whether I handled it in an efficient enough way, to make sure that there are no really jarring  shifts that look like they’re not there on purpose.

This has me thinking about POV in short SF. I haven’t actually bothered to sit down and count things up, but I get them impression that the two dominant POVs are first-person (with one POV per chapter or section, for example), or 3rd person limited omniscient focused on a single viewpoint character per section or, more often, for a whole story. I don’t find a lot of 3rd person omniscient, especially of the sort where the narrator is, to some degree, at odds with the main character. (Like we see in H.G. Wells’ novel Star Begotten, which I read recently. Wells’ narrator — not quite Wells, but close — is definitely making fun of aspects of his protagonist and other characters, even though there are eerie similarities between the main character and the author. This makes the whole thing really interesting in a way I don’t find altogether commonly used in contemporary SF.)  And while one could bitch about the limitations, I’m more inclined to see this as a function of the transparency that’s achieved by certain stylistic devices becoming commonplace in a genre and naturalized to a given reading population. The simple fact of the matter is, making a story “harder” than it needs to be is something akin to making a story longer than it needs to be: it’s a sin against the reader.

But some sins are, I think, forgivable; or rather, some sins, when turned inside out, become blessings. If messing with POV in a controlled way gets you a more powerful, affecting story, and you can do it without making readers wobble on the POV issue, then its a risk worth taking, I think.

I think.

I’m also sort of wondering about whether this differs much over the fence in fantasy-land — whether there’s more use of something like 3rd person omniscient over in the fantasy genre, or horror, or other subgenres. I’m too busy to look into it right now — busily catching up on my magazine subscriptions for 2008 — namely Asimov’s SF, Interzone, and Black Static, as well as a few online mags I’m way behind on — to actually sit down and look too closely.

Writers out there: what have you done with POV lately? And what’s the next thing you want to do experimenting with it? Me, I’m still casting about for something to try. Hmmmmm. Maybe something with shifting POVs, involving characters who are at odds with one another?

3 thoughts on “POV and Sins Worth Risking

  1. Sounds interesting. I just saw Gran Torino last night, and it did a wonderful job of making a bigot sympathetic. It took a little while, but there were some things in the story that made it a bit easier (starts w/ the main as a widower).

    Additionally, I think we need to occasionally give all these stupid fucking rules the middle finger.

  2. I know I’ve mostly been a student of poetry, whatever credentials I have, but I think one needs to look at things like POV as tools, as one might look at form and other structural elements in poetry.

    Do you want your story to feel claustrophobic, for example, as “The Coldest War” to think of a recent example, does? A third-person omniscent POV would ruin that story.

    But imagine a first-person POV of one of those sprawling novels like the LOTR trilogy, The Moor’s Last Sigh or Buddenbrooks or The Three Musketeers…something epic where you’re worldbuilding as opposed to building a mood.

    Maybe I’m saying stupidness you know already. But I don’t know about rules, just tools.

    because I am used to writing small, I’m all about structure, and my favorite prose works use it well.

    So that’s my 2c.

    Is your character the main point of the story, or both he and the world he moves in?

    Not that your story has to be sprawling to merit 3rd person.

    I think I may have failed to answer your question.

    I guess is the story about him or about him and. I think from what you said it is him and . . .

  3. Shawn,

    Woah, that’s a movie to add to my list. Incidentally, the fact my character is a widower also comes up in the first paragraph; he’s talking with his son and sees her in his boy’s face. (While also raging at what a politically-correct wimp he, and everyone, is.)

    I agree; actually, I wouldn’t probably put it as “giving the finger” but rather I’d say that writing that follows the rules competently is better than writing that breaks them incompetently, but in the end, competence really leads to transcending some or all of those prescribed rules. That’s one way a piece of writing really becomes art for me.


    Ha, you read this blog regularly enough to know what I think about credentials. :)

    I think you’re also onto something in terms of worldbuilding and POV. Though not necessarily the only linkage: for example, the alt-history worldbuilding in “Ten Hammers…” is very much peripheral, and it remained so when I shifted the story into 3rd person. (It didn’t take more of ceter stage, in fact, I think it became even more peripheral, which suits this story.)

    It reminds me of something Maureen McHugh pointed out at Clarion West — I think it was Maureen — about how, if your worldbuilding is super-complex, your plot needs to be simpler, while having a complex plot necessitates simmplifying (or less-detail-crammed) worldbuilding. I think there are variations, for example character palatability and so on. (A really unsavory character needs a really interesting world, or a POV that makes him more palatable.)

    I’m coming to think it’s about balance, and that all these aspects of the story are like a big long multi-band equalizer.

    I like this notion of “tools” instead of “rules.” It’s much better. It’s just that some tools are SO hard to use that it’s easiest to advise against certain uses for the newbie. (Just as I often tell my Korean composition students to just NOT use the semicolon… because I’ve never seen one of them construct a sentence where one would be useful anyway. That doesn’t mean someday they won’t, but for now, it’s just as easy to avoid as to confuse them with examples they cannot emulate.)

    As for my story — it’s complicated. It’s sort of mostly about him, and he’s the kind of guy whom one could meet very easily in any nursing home (at least back in the late 80s or early 90s, I think; they’re less common now, by virtue of having died out from old age) but it’s also about the world. Though the world seems peripheral, the story wouldn’t work without what’s there from this world, and all that it suggests.

    (Assuming the story *does* work with it. We’ll see, I suppose.)

    BTW I’m embarrassingly behind on Asimov’s at the moment, so I haven’t read Johnson’s new story, but I should be caught by the end of the month. I’ll say more then if it hits me.

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