Whose Head Is It Anyway?

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.35.05 AMIn fiction, viewpoint lets the reader know who is telling the story. And it also limits what they can tell the reader.

A lot of books are told, not from the main character’s view, but rather from a narrator’s viewpoint.

Bob, a bald-headed 45 year old nerd with a pot belly, went to the store and bought ham and eggs, both of which turned out to be green.

“Damn!”

The narrator tells us what Bob looks like, what he does, what he sees and what he says. Narrators do that — they give the reader all the detail needed to follow the story.

Bob, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t tell us he’s overweight. And he might not mention his bald head. If Bob were telling the story, he’d probably leave out those details.

But the narrator knows these details are important to readers so the narrator tells us what Bob looks like even though it’s not very flattering.

If Bob encounters someone, the narrator can do the same for the new person.

Alice sashayed up to Bob at the grocery returns counter and asked in her pip-squeak voice, “Bad meat?”

Bob had noticed the sway of her hips as she approached and, imagining what she would look like naked, smiled but then felt his face flush.

The narrator has gone a bit further here. He tells us what Bob is thinking and feeling. This makes the narrator omniscient. He’s inside Bob’s head and can tell us Bob’s thoughts and feelings.

Rather than using a narrator, some books are written with first person viewpoint. That’s when the character tells you what’s happening. It’s like reading their diary.

I went to the store today and bought eggs and ham but I later discovered they were both green.

When I went to return them, Alice was there — boy, was she hot! And I think she knows I think so, too.

While first person viewpoint sounds like a good choice, it’s actually only used in a small number of books. Because it’s like a diary written by that person, you don’t usually find background material, and diaries usually don’t include a description of the author.

There’s also second person viewpoint but there are only a handful of novels that use that.

Most novels use third person viewpoint — they talk about what he did and what she did. That’s the narrator telling the reader. And with third person, the narrator can provide background information, kind of like when someone is sitting with you at the bagel shop and telling you what happened to some friends of theirs, such as Bob and Alice.

You remember Bob, right? The bald-headed, fat guy that’s always leering at the pretty secretaries? Yeah, okay, so he’s at the grocery and buys this meat and eggs that turn out to be green — and I do mean green, really revolting — anyway, he goes back to the store to get his money back and, you remember Alice, that little pip-squeaky voiced girl that swayed her hips all the time? Okay, so she comes up to Bob and he’s getting all hot and bothered thinking Alice is coming on to him!

See all the background material? That’s what a narrator can do.

And if the narrator gets inside at least one character’s head, then the narrator is also being omniscient. When the book tells you what someone thinks silently to themselves, or when it says how they are feeling, that’s the omniscient quality.

In Serpent’s Smile, my original plan was to use a narrator and to have him tell us only what Spence could see, hear, taste and touch. If the reader needs to know what Spence is feeling, my original plan was to describe what Spence was doing, how his face looked, what he was doing with his hands and, by those, communicate what Spence felt.

For the most part, that’s still my goal, to show Spence’s feelings. After the beheading in the first chapter, Spence’s anguish and loss of control back in his hotel room is that. It’s showing how he felt instead of saying the feeling itself.

Show it, don’t say it, is good when you’re writing fiction.

But I must confess, when a character such as Spence debates within himself what he should do, he’s just sitting there thinking. You don’t see the debate and to someone standing and watching, his silent thoughts can’t be known.

Sometimes a writer will let you hear what a character is thinking by putting them in front of someone and letting them talk it out. I have Megyn and Spence do this sometimes. I put them face to face and guide their discussion so all the key points are mentioned.

But when the characters are keeping secrets from each other, from the Police, from everyone, then they can’t spill their guts to anyone.

Thus enters omniscience into Serpent’s Smile.

From time to time, the narrator will reveal what’s going on inside Spence’s head. There was a little of it in the first chapter. Actually, there was quite a lot of it once Spence and Sartaq made eye contact and Spence took off and ran like Hell.

Once I conceded to myself that my narrator would have to sometimes dig inside Spence’s head to expose his thinking, I wanted to limit it to only Spence. That would make it third-person viewpoint with single-person omniscience.

Continuing the above story of Bob and Alice, here’s the next section of that story with single-person omniscience.

Alice stopped abruptly and Bob wondered if she’d noticed his embarrassment.

Sure enough, she blushed a bright red and tried to conceal a small, coy smile with her hand.

Bob was sure she knew what he was thinking, and that she liked his leering stare!

In this segment, not only does Bob notice Alice’s reaction, but he also speculates on her thinking. But this is just Bob’s speculation. We haven’t heard from Alice yet. We only know what Bob knows and thinks.

Alice exclaimed, “Oh, no! I left a pot of eggs boiling on the stove. I’ve got to get home before it boils dry — the stink will be awful!”

Alice tells us why she’s embarrassed, but it’s not what Bob was thinking. Bob was wrong.

Unfortunately, in Serpent’s Smile, seeing only the things Spence could see (and think) was becoming burdensome, and the more I wrote, the worse it got.

As the story develops, you’ll find out there are a lot of things going on that Spence doesn’t know about. First, of course, Spence’s doesn’t know Sartaq, the bad guy, and while that doesn’t matter at first, what I found as I wrote purely from Spence’s viewpoint is that, as soon as Sartaq failed to chase down and kill Spence in the first chapter, I knew that readers would want to know why he had stopped. But since Spence doesn’t know Sartaq’s bigger plan, Spence couldn’t know or discover until much, much later.

Sartaq’s motivation would have to be dropped in later, and not just a little later. It would be almost the very end of the book before all of Sartaq’s actions could be explained.

If I had stayed with that approach, in the climax of the last chapter you’d read something like this:

Sartaq, aiming the pistol at Spence while [spoiler deleted] at the same time, said “Remember when I didn’t chase you right after I chopped off that guy’s head even though I saw you see me seeing you? Well, I didn’t chase you then because  the students on campus would’ve recognized me because [spoiler deleted] and, besides, I needed to fly to Singapore to [spoiler deleted]  and [spoiler deleted] so that when [spoiler deleted], I’d be ready for today.”

So, limiting the story to only a single character’s viewpoint, there was going to be all this baggage being shoved forward into the story. That baggage was something readers would have to carry to the very end.

And it was too much.

When the load of “I don’t understand why he did that,” becomes too much, readers say, “I’m lost,” and they abandon the book.

The writer has failed when that happens.

So I decided to let the narrator be omniscient about a second character, Sartaq.

In chapter “One and a Half,” I went back and inserted a chapter from Sartaq’s viewpoint. In it, we (immediately) find out that Sartaq is known on the campus and would be recognized if he continued the chase. And we find out that he has a plane to catch and, apparently, whatever is developing through the trip to Singapore is even more important to Sartaq than stopping Spence from going to the Police!

With that addition, readers get some of their questions answered almost immediately.

And possibly more important, they find out that while Sartaq may be a homicidal maniac, there is still some logic to his thinking. They can understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.

This makes Sartaq even more dangerous!

With some questions answered and the realization that Sartaq has a bigger plan, readers will only be tasked with carrying forward a smaller burden of uncertainty, and will be watching for hints of Sartaq’s bigger plan.

Multiple omniscience, however, is tricky. You can’t do it too much. If the narrator hops around too much from head to head, readers will have a hard time remembering just who knows what.

So, it’s better to stick to a small number of heads and, once we’re inside a particular head, it’s good to stay there a while.

A paragraph that includes several viewpoints is bad. That’s always confusing.

Some authors will change viewpoints but then stay put for several paragraphs.

Others use chapter boundaries. That’s what I will use.

Serpent’s Smile will “change heads” only between chapters. Chapter One is from Spence’s viewpoint and we read what he sees and thinks. Chapter “One and a Half” is a different chapter; it is from Sartaq’s viewpoint. We find out what’s going on inside his warped mind. Then, in Chapter’s Two and Three, we jump back to Spence and also back in time to find out where this all started.

Most of the story will still be from Spence’s viewpoint. He is the hero and we need to see (read) his actions to see (read) how he saves Megyn as well as thousands of innocents. (What a guy!)

So, for most of the book, you’ll be reading what the narrator chooses to tell of Spence’s actions and reactions, his body language, his face, how he uses his hands and so forth — things that reveal how he’s feeling.

Show, don’t tell, is the writer’s goal.

The narrator will describe Spence’s red face, his twisting hands, his downcast eyes, and you’ll decide what you think he’s feeling.

Rarely, the narrator will tell you what Spence is thinking. Sometimes that’s done to give you insight into his character. It also relieves you of carrying forward the question, “Now why the Hell did he do that?”

When Spence’s motivation is super important, or when it’s trivial but not obvious, the narrator will tell you. The rest of the time, the mystery is intentional; I want you to speculate why he might do what he did.

Most recently, I’ve decided you need to hear directly from Sartaq. The guy is really messed up but there’s a demented logic to his actions. What he does makes a certain amount of sense once you know what he’s thinking.

But that’s it. Most of the book will be narrated from Spence’s point of view. Occasionally, Sartaq’s head will be examined but no one else will fall under the motivational microscope.

What about Megyn? What about her thoughts and feelings?

Here’s an interesting thing about writers: Men write men’s feelings fairly well, but when they try to write how a woman feels, most women can tell it’s not written by a woman. It just doesn’t ring true.

And the converse is true, women don’t (usually can’t) accurately describe what a man thinks and feels.

This fundamental flaw of male versus female writers is easy to test. Go to the bookstore and pick up a Daniel Steele novel. Read two paragraphs and you’ll know it’s written by a woman. Then do the same with any male novelist. Try Clive Cussler or Stephen King or Michael Crichton.

And while you’re at it, check the sex of the author’s main character. In almost all cases, you’ll see that male writers have male protagonists, and female writers — Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels are the cat’s meow — have female protagonists.

I can think of no successful exceptions to that rule.

So, sorry Megyn, I can’t tell the world how you feel or what you are thinking. The narrator, Spence and Sartaq will all be able to see what you do and they’ll hear what you say, but like all of us in real life, they won’t know your inner thoughts and feelings.

The feminine mystique is safe!

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