Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TTYU Retro: A crazy anthropologist's view on close POV

I've been talking about point of view a lot recently, but as I was looking through my old posts, this one stood out. Part of it is because of my commenter Margaret's recent mention of "field notes" arising from my Show Don't Tell post. This post talks about how I use techniques in writing that I originally learned for writing field notes. It's an angle I don't often see taken in point of view discussions.

Let's consider the distribution of two types of information:

1. information that the point of view character is aware of
2. information that the point of view character is NOT aware of

I'll start with information the point of view character knows. This can include perceived sensation, emotional reaction, and judgment based on past experience. It may or may not be conscious.

I've seen many discussions about the problem of using the pronoun "I" too much in first person narrative. In fact, I'd say it would also apply to the overuse of a character's name, or the pronoun "he/she" in close internal third person narrative.
In order to avoid this myself, I operate on the assumption that people are not highly self-conscious. One function of the pronoun "I" is drawing a distinction between you and another person, and it involves stepping outside to look at yourself a little. Here is my general rule:

Use "I" for actions by the protagonist that involve conscious will.

"I look at him."

I use this sentence when the protagonist is deliberately turning to look at another character, out of curiosity, surprise, indignation etc. Compare that with a situation where the protagonist looks at the other character and observes something, but hasn't turned intentionally to look. In that case, I'll be more likely to use something like this:

"He's looking at me, suddenly."

In order for the character to know that someone's looking, he must have observed the fact himself - but the action of his observation here is less important than the content of what he's observed. This will apply to all kinds of sensory perceptions including sound, smell, taste, etc. Judgments can be delivered by your protagonist without him or her having to use a pronoun for him or herself.

"It's hot today." "That curry was spicy." "Boy, what an idiot!" etc.

I go on about judgment a lot. This is because it's one of the major tools I use for characterization. You can learn a lot about an individual based on the way he/she/it reacts to a given situation. Here's an example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009).

"I've told him many times that decorative cloth is most appropriately displayed on a wall, not dragged through mud and weather, but I won't chide now."

In this sentence, Rulii is expressing his judgment about the fact that Parker wears clothes. I've seen aliens judge humans for their clothes before in SF/F, so it's not an unfamiliar problem. In fact, Tom Ligon was the one who pushed me to take this concept further than just the typical one of surprise or disdain. When I wrote the sentence, I was taking advantage of the fact that people (of all sorts) do a lot of teaching of manners to those unfamiliar with them (children, newcomers, aliens), and had Rulii react like a parent/teacher of his culture toward Parker.

Let me call attention to the word I use for the clothes, "decorative cloth." Having Rulii use this word does something very specific: it establishes the function of cloth in his society for the reader. This is information that Rulii knows, and though it's not something he thinks about consciously, it's something really important, because it lies close to the heart of the misunderstanding between humans and Aurrel.

One of the things that I learned in my anthropological studies was how to pay attention to the words that people use to describe things. In particular, it was critical to pay attention to the metaphors people use for familiar and unfamiliar things, and to the judgments implied by those words. Anthropologist Edward Sapir (working in insurance before he got into anthropology) noticed that people tended to smoke around empty gas cans - a far more hazardous thing to do than smoking around full gas cans because of the volatility of gasoline vapor - because they felt reassured by the word "empty." To them, the word "empty" implied on an unconscious level that they were safe from the dangers associated with the presence of gasoline. Not such a good plan.

When you think about your character's judgments, think about labels he or she uses, which can imply information that he or she knows unconsciously about the society he or she lives in. This can allow you to create sensations of belonging, of closeness, or of discomfort and alienation, without having to explain them.

Enough for now on the topic of what the POV character knows. What about things he or she doesn't know?

This is where I like to call on the difference between observing something, noticing it, and understanding/judging it. Here's an example from my experience in language classrooms: a student can listen to Japanese or French all day, but unless they notice features of the language, they can't possibly learn them. On the other hand, they can notice these features and learn to use them without ever being able to explain how they work.

Say you have a boy and a girl talking to each other, and you happen to be in the boy's point of view, but you want to tell the reader something about what the girl is thinking. This is a moment when you can easily go "argh!" and throw up your hands, or decide that close POV was a mistake and you really need an omniscient narrator (which is a perfectly valid choice, if not always the right one).

This is where I go back to my experience learning about taking field notes. Field notes require the anthropologist to observe social interactions and write down every detail of what happens as quickly as possible without casting judgment. So instead of saying "the atmosphere was tense in the boardroom" you would record that the CEO was red-faced and scowling, and the people at the table were either sweating or sitting in closed body positions with their legs crossed in a direction away from the CEO, and that one guy was biting his fingernails every few seconds, then pausing, then biting them again. The idea of this kind of recording is to remove the level of summary judgment that we can so easily fall into, and provide the evidence to a reader, so that the reader can draw the same conclusions that we do.

This is exactly what we do as writers, and it's intimately connected to "Show, Don't Tell."

So let's go back to our boy and girl.

Situation 1: The boy is keen on getting a good reaction from this girl and having her judge him favorably. He'll be observing her, looking for evidence of that. So we can have him look at her: "He looked at her." Then we can describe what he sees on her face, in her body posture, her movements, etc. and show her feelings - or in this case, his perception of her feelings, for the reader to understand. We can then show the conclusions he draws from her motions, and his emotional response to the receptiveness, or standoffishness, he perceives in her. This situation thus includes all three parts: observing something, noticing it, and understanding/judging it.

Situation 2: The boy wants a good reaction from this girl, and observes her as they talk. He sees her posture and movements, and her expressions - notices them, but doesn't understand them. We still show the evidence of her emotional state so that readers can pick it up clearly, but instead of heading into his conclusions about her emotional state, we can give him expressions of uncertainty and confusion about the meaning of her behavior. This gives us observing and noticing, but not understanding it - which leads to a different kind of judgment. On the other hand, it doesn't have to mean leaving the reader behind.

Situation 3: The boy would be better off if he got a good reaction from this girl, but he doesn't know this and doesn't pay proper attention to her. Maybe he's looking at something else in the room, or talking about his own prior concerns. In this case, we can't give lots and lots of descriptive evidence of her state of mind, because he's not paying attention and wouldn't be able to notice. However, if it's critical for readers to understand her state of mind, we can still give her one highly relevant cue of body posture, expression or words that he'll observe, and which will deliver an explicit message to the reader who is looking for it, but he will remain in the dark. This is observing, but not noticing or understanding.

One of the things I really enjoy about using these distinctions is the possibility of creating something in a story that I can share with a reader - but not have any of the characters be consciously aware of it. When one of my critique partners comes back and shows that they've noticed what I've done, the crazy anthropologist in me gets an enormous grin on her face.


  1. This is exactly what I'm trying so hard to do in my WiP. Thank you! I'm trying to show another culture by how she reacts to our culture, and (since it's written in first person) trying to get rid of those dreaded "I"s. Thank you for writing this :)

  2. Suzi, glad to be of help! Thanks for your comment.

  3. Hmm, reading your post reassures me that I haven't done too badly culture-wise. It's taken some brushing up through my various (and many) edits but I think I'm doing all right. I did love your three examples, by the way.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Shannon! I'm glad you liked it.

  5. I hadn't thought much about that, but I wonder how much my anthropology training comes into play with my use of body language. Interesting article. Thanks.