Help! It’s the point-of-view Nazis!

A couple of postings ago, I used the term “point-of-view Nazi” in passing. Several readers have asked me since what it means, if I made it up, and what was I doing making light of Nazism, anyway? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the phrase, I shall write about this phenomenon at length today.

No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon. A point-of-view Nazi (POVN) is a reader — 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 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.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of narration: 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. It renders the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader. It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN wild.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, 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. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth, if you 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, bad writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary.

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 by writing teachers. 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.

Now, I have to admit something: I am not a big fan of this species of sweeping rule. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is possible.

In fact, 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 utterly, but the result is, I think, brilliant. I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS, with great success. And so on.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar — and 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.) Often, I find myself asking, “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 very simple. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Philosophically, I find this troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

So do I like to hear the thoughts of multiple players in a scene, to capture the various subtleties of interpretation? You bet. If I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative. Call me wacky.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen.

To be fair, too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing. One of the more common first-novel problems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion.

If you are involved with a writing teacher, writing group compatriot, agent, or editor who is a POVN, you need to recognize his preference as early in your relationship as possible, in order to protect your own POV choices. Otherwise, you may end up radically edited, and some characterization may be lost. Take, for example, this paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE :

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose here, right? Yet, as a POVN would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

A POVN in Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a perspective and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from Jane’s original intention:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. Yet observe how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for awhile. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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