Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Janus Conundrum: Choosing Your Point of View

I don't use first-person point of view, and I don't very often find anyone else who does it well. Why this is true is difficult to explain... unless you have a kitchen accident to use to illustrate the problem.
A couple of months ago, I bought a bunch of red bell peppers with the intent of making stuffed peppers. I had six more than I ended up using and rather than letting them go to waste, I threw them in the freezer as I often do. Flash forward a couple of weeks. Frozen bell peppers are fine in any application that doesn't rely upon them retaining a crisp texture. So when I decided to make chicken salad for dinner, I pulled one of them out of the freezer, took out my largest, heaviest chef's knife and set to work.

Angle of incidence equals angle of deflection, solve for finger.

When the frozen pepper rocked under the knife blade and the edge sliced into my left ring finger instead of the pepper, I simultaneously went in two different mental directions. I immediately applied pressure to the wound and raised in above my heart to minimize blood loss (a rational move). I also picked the knife back up and stabbed it repeatedly into the cutting board while I screamed (not quite so rational).

Then I sat down on the floor and went away for awhile.

Next thing I remember is sitting in the bathroom giving my wife instructions she didn't need on how best to apply gauze and tape. An hour later, as I was picking at the bandages and reflecting on my clumsiness, it occurred to me that what had just happened would be very difficult to write accurately from the first person. (Yes, this really is what I was thinking. These are the mental tricks I pursue when I'm trying not to think about the throbbing pain and stupidity of my current predicament.)

During moments like these, my attention splits and the part of me dealing with the issue has another part of me watching and commenting and giving notes. In other words, I begin to operate simultaneously on at least two levels, one of them rational and one of them very much not. How much control I have over the irrational side seems to correspond directly to whether or not I'm the one who is bleeding and if so, how much. So at the end of the day, I'd lost a hunk of finger and had a writing problem to noodle with in order to keep me from picking at the bandage. (Actually I had two writing problems, since typing without using your ring finger or wearing-out the backspace keys is a problem of its own.)

I find problems easier to deal with if I name them, so I shall call this one The Janus Conundrum. Partly because Janus is the two-faced god of Roman mythology, handy for expressing duality, and partly because I'll never get to write a Robert Ludlum novel, so where else will I have an opportunity to use a term like "Janus Conundrum"?

I've seen writers try to deal with this duality in various ways and with various levels of success, but I think that ultimately there are some things you simply cannot express fully in words. Recreating the scene at the cutting board accurately would require two concurrent narratives. One of them would be collating biological processes of coagulation, knitting epithelial cells and plotting wound care. The other more akin to a beat poet describing an angry chef with a grudge against frozen fruit.

Both are correct, but the two simply don't blend well. So how do you unite the two narratives? 

You don't. At least I don't. This is part of why most of the first-person narrators in the literary world aren't multi-track thinkers.  Direct, plain-speaking noir detectives, menschy and affable, but generally writers don't put you in the heads of physicists or writers. Throwing two viewpoints for one character involved into a tense moment is jarring and tends to break the narrative flow.

In the last letter I wrote to my nephew I discussed the way that point of view dictates how you introduce characters and how much you tell the reader about them. That same lessons pays forward through the whole of the narrative. How much we see of the action and how the characters react depends greatly upon the point of view we're using to view the kitchen accident (or gunfight, or blimp disaster, or earthquake or whathaveyou...) and how much we know of the duality of their actions will depend upon how much it would be apparent to an observer.

Which brings us back to how we choose our POV. In the first person narrative, I would have to find a way to deal with the Janus Conundrum. This is one of the stumbling blocks of first person narratives. Someone else watching me waling on the cutting board and screaming while holding my bleeding hand aloft would relate the incident very differently than I would. They might react to a normally rational and even-tempered man freaking out at the sight of his own blood or reacting to his own stupidity, or they might not know me well enough to do so and wisely run away from the nut with the knife.

I would be prone to call this the inherent superiority of a third person omniscient viewpoint. I can show duality without confusing the audience. Because the audience is watching rather than living inside the nut's head. Not that it gets you entirely out of the knotty problem of telling a story with multi-track thinkers as your characters.

But here my kitchen accident solves the problem as well as illustrating it. It's far better to reflect upon the mental gymnastics after the fact rather than trying to show all of them in real time. Instead of uniting multiple simultaneous mental tracks in a single narrative in 'real time', I prefer to reunite them after the fact. Reflective characters picking at their bandages and contemplating their previous stupidity/heroism. With the able assistance of an eccentric doctor just begging to be written into a future novel, my finger is mostly healed now.

All that remains is the lesson (cut the peppers before you freeze them), the scar and the conundrum.

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of historical suspense. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on revising his NaNoWriMo novel, tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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1 comment:

  1. Excellent!

    Although your first sentence bemuses me. Shouldn't that read "Scott doesn't use first person point of view"? :-P

    What does Zelazny do that makes him one of the best? I think it has a lot to do with the ironic detachment of his narrator. If your bell pepper incident had happened to Corwin, he'd have written "The knife slipped into my thumb. Blood. '--- ------!' said I. Another fine thing. I called for The Engineer -- gauze, tape, scotch."

    But when you don't subdue the character's emotions under a blanket of irony, you are forced to express them raw and unadulterated, thus leading to your excellent pseudo-Ludlum title.

    At least that's my admittedly non-writer's read.


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