Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The point of view, part 4

Continuing my series of posts on the various viewpoints from which fiction may be written.

The minor-character viewpoint

The third and final angle from which a story may be told is the minor-character viewpoint. It is sometimes referred to as the mystery angle – for reasons which will now be explained.

In a story told from the viewpoint of a minor character, the narrator is a participant in the action, but is more of an observer than a person who makes the key decisions in the story. And a story told from the minor-character viewpoint can be written in either the first or the third person.

Fortunately, we don’t have to go far to find an example of a whole series of stories which are told from the point of view of a minor character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provides us with the archetype in the Sherlock Holmes canon.

The Holmes stories, you will recall, are written in the first person by the great detective’s faithful assistant, Dr Watson. And, as Conan Doyle obviously realised at an early stage, the minor-character viewpoint is ideal when the author wishes to maintain a sense of mystery. We, the readers, know no more than Watson is able to tell us, and as often as not that is not very much. Holmes sits and puffs his pipe, and comes to amazing conclusions, but we, like Watson, stumble along in Holmes’s wake, wondering what on earth he is up to now.

Countless other crime novelists have adopted the same technique. S.S. Van Dine wrote a series of mystery novels which were related by the detective’s secretary. Rex Stout’s books about the eccentric detective Nero Wolfe are recounted by Wolfe’s faithful sidekick, Archie Goodwin. And so on.

The minor-character angle has other uses, however. Suppose you were to write a story in which the main character is going to be driven insane, or commit suicide, as a result of the impact of certain tragic events. Such a story could either be told from an omniscient viewpoint, or it could be told by a minor character. Through the eyes of such a minor character, the reader shares the impact of the events on the narrator, and is told of the much greater effect that they have on the major character.

As with the other two viewpoints, the writer of a story told from the minor-character viewpoint can influence the reader’s attitudes towards all the other characters in the story by the extent to which the narrator gives the reader nudges, winks, and nods.

When using the first person, you can also colour the reader’s view of the minor character cum narrator by what you make the narrator say about himself, about the other participants in the action, and about the nature of the unfolding events.

If you were ever extravagant enough to buy a copy of my own collection of short stories (King Albert’s Words of Advice), you might need to know that I regard Decent White Folk as a story with a minor-character viewpoint, told in the first person. The principal character in that story is the Inspector, not the narrator.

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