This post continues the series of extracts from my forthcoming book on the technique of the short story. The extracts are taken from the chapter on the various points of view from which a story may be written.
The major-character viewpoint
A story which uses the major-character viewpoint is, rather obviously, one in which the events are related as seen by one of the most important participants in the events. A story told from this point of view is an account of the action as seen (or heard), by a character who is heavily involved in the story.
When using this viewpoint, you relate the events as the major character sees them, and you probably describe that one character’s thoughts and feelings. But you do not enter the heads of any of the other characters, or tell the reader what those characters are thinking and feeling.
Why not? Well, because your major character can’t be sure what the other characters are thinking. Unlike the omniscient author, he or she is not a god. The main character may guess what is running through the minds of the others, from the way they look and act – but he can’t know for sure.
Consider, for example, Maupassant’s story The Beggar (which you can find here). The Beggar tells readers about what happened to the only important character in the story. It is told in the third person, and the author describes the events precisely as they were experienced by the main character, the beggar himself.
In addition to recounting events, Maupassant describes the beggar’s thoughts and his feelings. He also tells us what other characters do in relation to the beggar, but he never tells us what those characters are thinking and feeling. We can definitely deduce that those characters are angry, and resentful, and that they dislike the beggar, but we are never told exactly what they are thinking or feeling internally.
Chekhov’s Old Age is another story told from the major-character viewpoint, in the third person.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado uses the major-character, first person viewpoint.
So far so good. But hold on a minute, you say. There may be four or five major characters in a story so how do you decide which of them to use as your pair of eyes?
Al Zuckerman’s opinion (with which I do not intend to argue) is that you should select as the viewpoint character the character who is experiencing the biggest emotional load – the one who has the most to gain, or to lose, depending on how the events of the story turn out. Maupassant’s choice of the beggar himself as the viewpoint character was a fairly obvious one!
The major-character viewpoint is ideal for stories in which the viewpoint character experiences strong inner conflicts, which you can describe in some detail. Your character may well sit and think for some time, rather than act as prompted by pure reflex. (Action after due consideration is much more revealing of character than is action on the spur of the moment.)
As remarked above, a story told from the omniscient viewpoint has to be written in the third person. The major-character viewpoint story, however, can be written in either the third or the first person.
Uzzell maintained that it doesn’t make a scrap of difference which grammatical form you use, because both forms convey exactly the same information. ‘I climbed the stairs’ tells us no more than ‘He climbed the stairs’. This is true, up to a point. But... it is worth making a few comments.
To begin with, a first-person narrator must usually be a reasonably articulate individual, if he is to be convincing. Having said that, you may, of course, want to convey an impression of an individual who is not particularly articulate, in which case the first-person mode conveys perfectly what a limited vocabulary the fellow has.
The first person is far better than the third if you want to write a story which is told with a regional accent. See, for instance, my story Decent White Folk, in King Albert’s Words of Advice.
I sometimes feel, instinctively, when reading a story told in the first person, that such a story is probably more involving to the reader than it would be if it were told in the third person. That, however, is not a contention which I can prove. And I do have to accept the validity of a point made by Gerard Genette, namely that it is implicit in a first-person story that the narrator has survived the events which he is describing. When reading a first-person story we thus have some assurance (perhaps absorbed unconsciously) that our first-person character will come out on top in the end. So, if you want to maintain total suspense about the ultimate fate of the main character, then the third person is the one to use. Maupassant, for instance, could not use the first person in The Beggar, because the beggar ends up dead!
It is also true, I believe, at least in most cases, that stories which call for a great deal of psychological analysis and self-questioning are better handled in the third person. An individual who, on his own admission, spends a lot of time worrying about his own motives and reviewing his own past history can soon begin to seem rather self-centred.
When using the main-character viewpoint, it is still possible to ‘colour’ your descriptions subjectively, or alternatively make them objective, in just the same way as was described in relation to the omniscient viewpoint. In other words, even when you are writing in the first person, your main character can either say ‘He was a seedy and unpleasant-looking man’, or, ‘His shoes were down-at-heel and his raincoat was streaked with dirt’. It is worth noticing, however, that in the major-character story, the writer’s choice of words will not only colour the reader’s attitude towards the other character who is being described, but the words will also colour the reader’s view of the major character himself.
For example, if a first-person narrator says of another character ‘He was a total shit-bag’, then you know that the narrator is not a man who pulls his punches. On the other hand, if the first-person narrator says (of the same character), ‘He was far from a perfect gentleman’, then the narrator is revealing that he is probably an elderly gentleman who was brought up in the age of understatement.
Finally, before we leave this discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the major-character narrative in the first person, I should not neglect to acquaint you with the concept of ‘the unreliable narrator’.
The term is pretty much self-explanatory, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious I will just say that it is at least possible that a character who gives you a first-person account of a series of events may, in fact, be lying through his teeth. The whole story may be a complete fabrication, intended either to entertain or to deceive. This possibility presents a number of interesting opportunities, but I will leave it to you to explore them.
The concept of the unreliable narrator is much discussed in literary circles. Indeed in the Eng. Lit. common rooms of the great universities they speak of little else. But don’t let that put you off.
Another possibility presented by first-person narration is not so much that the narrator is lying, as that he misunderstands completely the meaning of the events that he is witnessing. And, if you can somehow contrive to reveal to the reader that the narrator is drawing entirely the wrong conclusions from the events in which he is involved, then the result can be either comic or tragic, depending on how you handle the material.
This writing business, you will now realise, does tend to get a bit complicated at times. But therein lies the skill; and by mastering these skills through practice you will gradually learn how to ensure that your stories have a bigger impact on the reader – an impact more in line with the one that you have intended.