• An "I" narrator tells the story himself or herself.
• The "I" narrator is not the author; you must erase yourself from your narrator's experience!
• Allow the "I" narrator his own quirks, prejudices, and vocabulary.
• Make sure the "I" narrator's observations fit with her world. A professional skater might call the night sky "black as ice"; a printer might call the same sky "black as ink."
• When the narrator is a child, simplify the vocabulary but don't necessarily drop all imagery from the prose. A child sees in simile, too: "The dog was big as a bear."
• When the narrator is an adult looking back (a reminiscent narrator), watch for sentimentality. Avoid cliche. Use the specific in place of the abstract. Replace indistinct feelings ("I felt nervous") with something the reader can see or feel or hear: "Every tick of the clock sounded like a gunshot."
• If you want the reader to get a physical picture of the narrator, be careful about letting the narrator describe himself. Don't use mirrors, ponds, or storefronts to let the narrator see himself and relay what he sees to the reader.
• The "I" narrator should describe himself only if the description also reveals his personality: "I admit I was a handsome devil." Otherwise, try the following techniques:
1. Describe by association: "I'm husky like my sister."
2. Use the plot: "Because I was tall she put me last in line."
3. Use an observant second party: "I thought you'd look much older," he said.
SECOND-PERSON POINT OF VIEW
The second-person point of view isn't used much, probably because it's a bit strange—not the way readers are used to having stories presented to them. Also, second person can begin to feel cloying or gimmicky over the space of a long story or a novel. Not that it can't be done: Jay McInerney uncovered the full potential of second-person point of view in his novel Bright Lights, Big City. Lorrie Moore used second person to great advantage in her story collection Self-Help.
Second person is often used as a glorified first person, as if the first-person narrator were talking to herself:
Because you're red-haired and grey-eyed and fond of tight clothes, men keep mistaking you for their old girlfriends. "Wanda!" they'll holler, charging across the street, against the light. "Marlene? Is that you?" they'll ask, scanning your chest as if looking for a name tag.
Notice that the descriptive style is exactly the same as in the first-person point of view. You can't inject your own comments or observations; the story belongs entirely to the second-person narrator.
The second-person narrator has a bit more leeway than the first-person narrator when it comes to physical description. For one thing, the confident second-person tone implies a certain degree of chutzpa: the narrator is almost always infused with self-confidence:
You sidle up to the teller's window and run a hand through your thick black curls. She's yours already. She likes the dimple in your chin, even the creases that have lately turned up near your eyes when you smile.
If you transpose the above passage to first person, the character sounds unacceptably obnoxious. Second person gives the readers just enough distance to accept this kind of self-description from a character.
The second-person point of view is usually rendered in present tense, perhaps because present tense reinforces that second-person sense of urgency. Ordinary observations seem weightier somehow when transposed from first to second person. The smallest details take on extra gravity, and you can add tiny descriptive touches that you can't get away with in first person:
First person: I peer into my husband's musty study. The clock I stole from Mr. Bloom is still ticking, its square and gloomy face revealing nothing.
Second person: You peer into your dead husband's study. The clock you stole from Mr. Bloom is still ticking, its square and gloomy face revealing nothing.
In second person the description of the clock takes on more ominousness, and you are also free to add the adjective "dead." The word "dead" in the first-person version of this passage would have seemed too staged, as if you had planted it there only for the readers' information. In the second-person version, it fits right in with the weighty feel of that point of view.
SECOND-PERSON POINT OF VIEW
• "You" is the stand-in for the "I" narrator: "You walked into your cozy little house and some blond had eaten all your porridge."
• The story belongs to the "you" character just as if he were a first-person narrator. Keep the details true to the "you" character's experience.
• Careful not to let the "you" character sound like an outtake from a Humphrey Bogart movie. The second-person tone can easily slip into hard-boiled-detective mode: "You approach the door. You knock. You turn the knob. You hold your breath." Vary your sentence constructions to avoid this pitfall. Don't start every sentence with "you," any more than you'd start every sentence with "I" in a first-person story.
• Physical description is easy to bring off with a "you" character, because second person strikes a confident tone: "You decide to wear the red raincoat because it makes you look like Liza Minelli on a good day."
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT POINT OF VIEW
Third-person narration can take various forms, depending on how close you want your readers to get to your characters. Third-person narrative is traditionally divided into two broad categories: omniscient point of view and third-person-limited point of view. In omniscient narrative, a (usually) disembodied, all-knowing "voice" tells the story. Some omniscient voices have so much personality that they seem to be characters themselves:
Our darling heroine's words, spoken in a frail tremor that could turn the blackest heart inside out, resonated through the choir loft like the final notes of a hymn.
The momentary dip into first person ("our darling heroine") is a nineteenth-century convention that is little used today. Nevertheless, omniscient narrators can be fully present even when they do not announce themselves so overtly:
Angel Callahan, a plump, silly woman with a thicket of graying hair, lumbered across the lane like one of the sloe-eyed sheep she was so fond of herding.
Other omniscient narrators are nearly invisible; the story seems to have appeared fully formed on the page, unaided by hand or voice:
Randall pressed the envelope closed, the tips of his fingers whitening as he mashed them against the gluey flap. His siblings watched, their eyes glittering darkly.
The omniscient narrator may enter the mind of all the characters, in a "God's eye view":
The contents of Randall's envelope scared Jill, intrigued Marty, and disgusted Joan.
Or, the narrator may remain objective—a mere "camera eye view" that reports events without entering the characters' heads:
Randall sealed the envelope as his siblings watched. All the faces in the room reflected varying degrees of anger.
Or, the narrator may confine omniscience to one character, in a "focused omniscience":
Randall Gardner was a shrewd, unfeeling man with a flair for the dramatic. The morning shadows slatted across his back as he bent languorously over the writing table. He sealed the envelope with a theatrical flick of the fingers, aware of the dark glow of his siblings' glittering eyes. That he had no idea what they were thinking was his first failure of the day.
As you can see from these examples, the omniscient narrator has great latitude. The omniscient "eye" may roam all over a story, from character to character, place to place, past to present to future. The omniscient "voice" may interpret events or merely record them. And, unlike the first-person narrator or third-person-limited narrator, the omniscient narrator has the entire English language at his disposal. (I use "he" for simplicity's sake, though the narrator is more of an "it" that a "he" or "she.") The omniscient narrator can use language as formal or casual as he wishes, regardless of the characters whose story he is telling.
These point-of-view choices affect the readers' mental image in different ways. The omniscient narrator may give us a perception of the events and also a feeling or attitude about those events. Or, the omniscient narrator may be so invisible as to grant us only the barest information that we must then make our own judgments about. What we perceive depends on the nature of the omniscient narrator.
Omniscience is tricky business; the trick is finding the narrative style and tone that fit the story and then keeping that style and tone consistent. As the preceding examples show, omniscient narrators don't all sound the same. It is up to you to find the omniscient voice that fits the story's purpose. Consider the following first lines:
Example One: Once upon a time . . .
Example Two: Upstate New York.
Half-moon and a wrack of gray clouds.
Church windows and thirty nuns singing the Night Office in Gregorian chant. Matins. Lauds. And then silence.
Example Three: Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?
The first example is the opening line of countless fairy tales; the second is the opening of Ron Hansen's short novel Mariette in Ecstasy; the third is the first line of George Eliot's great novel Middlemarch. From these first lines, we understand something about the type of story we are about to hear. The omniscient narrator makes a pact with readers from the outset: Settle in; listen; I know everything and will relate it in a certain way and in due course. The omniscient voice—that is, the descriptive style—is established immediately and profoundly affects the way we perceive the story.
The omniscient narrator often has a perspective—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—on the story being related. He may even insert opinions from time to time. In The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James describes his main character this way:
Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts, and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar.
It is clear that this omniscient narrator (who in the opening of the novel even refers to himself as "I" and then disappears gradually as the story unfolds and Isabel becomes the primary focus) has opinions about all kinds of things, including Isabel's qualities and those of her contemporaries. The omniscient narrator must, above all, carry an air of authority. This is true whether you choose a fully present omniscient narrator or an invisible one. Readers must feel they are in the hands of the expert, the one who knows everything there is to know about the story in question, and who plans to relate the story in exactly the order, style, and method it was intended to be told.
The Omniscient Tone Assuming this authority is a great challenge to the writer. Because the omniscient narrator has access to every character's background, disposition, and inner thoughts, and may choose to reveal any or all of these things at any given time, a writer can become overwhelmed with too much choice. Keep reminding yourself that what unifies the omniscient narrative (or any narrative, for that matter) is consistency of descriptive style. Beginning writers often believe they are writing in the omniscient point of view, but a lack of consistency mars the overall tone so vital to a convincing omniscient narrative. For example, if you present the daughter in your story as "juked on quaaludes, tippy-tappin' her painted toes, and singin' man-oh-man like a cat in heat" and two pages later describe the father as "a midwestern gentleman of portly stature and possessed of a heart burdened by melancholy," the unlucky readers are left to puzzle over a host of characters in search of an narrator.
The following examples illustrate how the right descriptive style can unify tone. This is the opening of a story about Anna Tremblay, a spoiled debutante who has just returned from a charity mission in Central America.
Anna's welcome-back party was just getting started. Her mouth dried when she saw Ralph walk in. She slunk behind one of the beaded curtains to look him over. His puppylike features were crossed with misgiving. He was worried about seeming too eager or too casual—he still couldn't believe that Anna had spent six weeks helping to build a health clinic in God-Knows-Where. Evelyn had filled him in on the tantalizing details, though he made a point of believing only a quarter of anything
Evelyn had to say. Marcus, standing by the punch bowl and clutching his wife's silk purse, squinted at the party-goers with disdain. "These people don't give a hoot about Anna," he told his wife. "They're just hoping for some virtue by association." His wife nodded; she agreed with everything her husband said not because she loved him but because she was afraid of him.
Whoa! Whose party is this, anyway? Beginning writers, thinking they are telling a story with an "objective" (i.e., omniscient) narrator, make the mistake of jumping from character to character because an omniscient narrator is allowed to. (A little like climbing a mountain because it is there.) The problem is, the above passage has no omniscient narrator. In fact, there is no narrator at all, just a bunch of characters clamoring for center stage. There isn't much description, either, you'll notice. A narrator doesn't simply relate a story, he or she describes a story. The omniscient narrator should assume a certain perspective and stay with it—think of omniscience as the same music playing in the background from beginning to end. Let's try this party again, this time with an omniscient narrator who, while not a character himself, lends a definite perspective to the story.
Because they liked to be seen every four or five weeks, everyone on Park Place Drive turned out for Anna Tremblay's welcome-home party. Anna, determined to appear a free spirit, had her father's drawing room cleared of furniture and decorated with eight hundred tiny straw dolls strung on wire so thin they appeared to be dancing on air. The effect was frivolous and frightening all at the same time, much like the pastel facades of the Park Place houses.
At eight-thirty Ralph Plunkett arrived, the imperious rustle of his trenchcoat vibrating strangely in the cavernous, empty room. Anna offered her hand—ringless, sunburned, slivered from six selfless weeks of hammer-and-nails in Guatemala—like some exotic hors d'oeuvre; Ralph hesitated only a moment before he impulsively kissed it. "Welcome back," he said, then looked up as a flurry of other guests appeared at the door. The Stillwaters, the Coopers, the Smythes, the Jernigans, coiffed and bejewelled, their tinkling laughter swirling around a subtle core of malice. Anna greeted them all, extending that same unpolished hand, that naked, exotic thing, her prize.
In this second version of the party, the prose is unified by a central voice, an omniscient presence that sees the entire neighborhood and describes the events with a pointedly arched eyebrow. Although we don't yet know who the central character is going to be (by the third or fourth paragraph, we should know, however), what is clear is that the story contains themes of class, pretension, deception, and that the storyteller has an opinion about them. The details are more specific and meaningful than those in the first version, and every word seems to flow from the same consciousness. The piece is so convincingly unified by perspective and tone that the word "selfless" has to be taken as condescension and nothing else.
An omniscient narrator may love or hate his characters, but he is rarely neutral. The pathos or ridicule or humor in a story lies in the way the omniscient narrator chooses to describe events. The tone may be casual or formal, humorous or grave, admiring or condescending. These perspectives are revealed through such innocent devices as adjectives, verbs, adverbs, syntax, even punctuation.
The omniscient narrator above describes Anna as "determined to appear a free spirit," which alerts the readers to Anna's smugness and self-delusion. How differently would we perceive Anna had the narrator observed, "Anna was a free spirit"? Why, we might actually believe that her Guatemalan trip was selfless. To strengthen the notion of Anna's self-delusion, the narrator describes the party decor not as "lots of South American decorations" but, rather, as the specific "eight hundred tiny straw dolls strung on wire. ..." This accuracy of detail not only gives us a better sense of the absurd decor (and the personality of Anna and the whole neighborhood), but also gives Anna away by revealing the number of dolls as if she had counted them herself. Some free spirit! It is clear that Anna has thrown much time and thought into this party, that she wants to be perceived in a certain way. The narrator tells us that her efforts are "frivolous and frightening all at the same time, much like the pastel facades of the Park Place houses." We understand immediately that the story will be about more than a neighborhood party, because a certain tone has been set. The final line, which refers to Anna's scarred hand as her "prize," gives away the narrator's perspective: Anna is a rich girl who thinks six weeks of work is a badge of courage, and she's going to milk it for all it's worth.
Notice, too, the imagery that the omniscient narrator uses; it is loaded with meaning. The room is "cavernous, empty," much like the characters' lives. Ralph's coat makes an "imperious rustle," which calls to mind the very rich and the presumption of power. The image of the straw dolls seeming to dance on air is powerful in the context of Anna's artifice—is she any more substantial than one of those dolls? The description here is careful, relevant, accurate, and consistent in tone—this is how omniscient narrators are created. This narrator doesn't miss a thing, and the story he is handing to the readers is deftly layered with his interpretation of events.
Omniscience and Physical Description In the omniscient narrative, physical description of characters is not very restrictive. Knock yourself out. Compare the main character to Jack Ruby or a burrowing mole or Princess Grace. It's your show. The omniscient narrator sees everything however he wishes to see it. You needn't worry about violating a character's point of view, because the point of view does not belong to the character in an omniscient narrative; it belongs to the voice or presence that is telling the tale. What you do need to watch for, however, is the omniscient narrative's consistency with itself. The above story would strike a false note if Anna Tremblay were compared to a "beauty-parlor groupie, all hair goop and Mary Kay." The references to "goop" and "Mary Kay" would be out of step with this omniscient narrator's arch, sophisticated vocabulary. You could use the same comparison with slightly different wording:
Her excellent address notwithstanding, Anna always looked as if she'd just stepped out of a beauty parlor down on Third Avenue, in full violation of the unspoken rule that a sophisticated woman's hair should not be as wide as it is high.
Obviously Anna herself would never offer such a description; nor would Ralph or the other guests at the party. The omniscient narrator has a wonderful freedom with physical description that can be a lot of fun for the writer. This freedom of description is an omniscient narrative's best virtue, making its other challenges well worth the trouble.
Omniscience and Child Characters Child narrators can be effective storytellers (see the section on first-person point of view), but what if you don't want your child character to tell her own story? She might not have the language to express her complicated situation; perhaps something takes place in the story (a secret adoption, or a plot to kidnap her) that the child can't know about; or maybe the story must be told in an arch tone that is contrary to the child's nature. A switch to omniscience will instantly solve all problems of child voice and child tone and child perception; what you sacrifice, however, is proximity to the child.
When you convert a first-person narrative to an omniscient narrative, you begin to write a different story altogether, whether you want to or not. You sacrifice the child's wide-eyed descriptions for a more sophisticated (but often more lyrical, more satisfying) description from an omniscient narrator. Look at the following examples:
First person: Momma's going away today. I know because Auntie Rita told me. I was sitting on Momma's big trunk and Auntie Rita scooched down to look at me. I smelled lipstick on her mouth, and little sparkles of powder showed on her face when she smiled. ...
Omniscient: It was Rita who had to tell the child that her mother was going away. The child sat on the lip of the great packing trunk, her spindly legs hanging over the edge, the heels of her Mary Janes tick-ticking against the lock. Rita squatted awkwardly on the balding carpet and looked into the child's light-filled eyes. Rita smiled. "Honey . . ." she began. But that was all. Aunt and niece remained still in the buttery light, their mouths locked against questions they dared not ask or answer.
If you are willing to forego the first-person immediacy of the child's experience, you often end up with a richer story with more shades of meaning in the descriptions. In the second version the child's perspective is gone, and yet the heartbreak of the scene remains, aided by buttery light and locked mouths and ticking shoes. The "tick-ticking" shoes suggest not only a child's fidgety demeanor but the excruciating passage of time: the child has only a few more moments before her mother leaves. Similarly, their "locked" mouths suggest not only an inability to speak at the present moment, but a sense that this moment itself will be "locked"—locked into the child's memory, locked out of future conversations. A child narrator cannot convincingly deliver this kind of description herself.
Sometimes a story demands an intimacy with the character that omniscience cannot provide. Without resorting to first-person narration, you want to draw your readers deep into the character's experience. This is where third-person-limited point of view comes in.