It is a premise of Hills’ book that movement of character is synonymous with story. The degree of demonstrated movement may be momentous or barely a whisper, but through this change we perceive that something has happened in a work of fiction. It stands to reason, then, that if authors want to generate as much artistic and emotional power as possible from movement of character, they will probably give the genesis and resolution of that movement considerable authorial attention.
Of all the attention-focusing techniques available to you as a storyteller, none is greater than point of view. Scene selection, setting, tone and any other aspect of story — including even characterization itself — can be emphasized or minimized in service of your authorial goals, but point of view is global. Where all other aspects of story, in proportion, affect the unity and effectiveness of a work, point of view determines how we perceive that unity and effectiveness. Choose the wrong setting and you may dampen the effect of your story. Choose the wrong point of view and you may destroy it completely.
As discussed in a previous post, point of view is so inherent in storytelling that it warps entire mediums to its power. Film and television are capable of delivering almost any fictional world and story, as long as you avoid first-person point of view. You can set your story on the moon, you can invent an entirely new species of characters — you can, literally, do anything you want, as long as you stay in third person. If you try to make the camera act as a character, however, you will almost certainly fail.
Because there are multiple point-of-view choices available in fiction it can seem as if the choice of point of view is simply another deliberative step in the storytelling process. You pick the techniques you want to use, including point of view, stir them together, bake at 350 degrees for forty minutes, and voila, your story is done. But if demonstrating movement of character is the authorial objective in fiction (it is), and point of view is intimately associated with character even when pov does not inhabit a particular character, then it stands to reason that choice in point of view may affect your ability to focus a story.
And so it does:
The essential dynamic, we have said, is that character is moved by action. We have called the character to whom the events of the narrative have consequence the “moved” character. It is my belief that the moved character and the point-of-view character, in successful fiction, will prove to be one and the same.
In making the case for a connection between character movement and point of view, Hills gives four examples. The first two reference James and Mailer and the last Conrad, but I think the third is perhaps most accessible. In talking about Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hills writes:
The central figure in Gatsby may be the title character, but the point of view figure is of course the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the book eventually focuses on the effects of the narrative on him. This is made very clear at the beginning, in several key sections in the middle, but most forcefully at the end:…
Hills is right when he says later that most writers — including writers of considerable talent and success — are generally oblivious of the relationship between point of view and movement of character. Because authors rightly value their independence, it can be tempting to conclude that this craft ignorance may have its own rewards, but it doesn’t. As the examples Hills gives make clear, both James and Mailer had to rework entire novels because of craft confusion about the point-of-view characters and central characters in their works. Had they read this section and taken its lesson to heart not only would they have avoided having to fix their work, they would have undoubtedly saved time during the conception stage as well.
In an earlier section Hills talked about how series television intentionally inverted the relationship between character movement and point of view. The series regulars — the central characters — remained unchanged from episode to episode, leaving the guest stars to demonstrate movement as a result of the action of each week’s story. In a follow-up post I noted that television has evolved since Hills wrote his book, and it’s now the norm that series TV includes movement of character in central (if not also point-of-view) characters. This change was made precisely for the reason Hills suggests: to increase (make more “successful”) the force of the weekly narrative.
What Hills is saying here is simple and straightforward. If you tattoo it on the inside of your eyelids it will probably, at some point, keep you from a false start or misstep that obligates you to additional remedial writing or to abandon a project all together. Whether intentional or unintentional, trying to write a story in which movement is demonstrated in a character other than the point-of-view character is like trying to make a first-person movie: there’s no law against it, but you are going to waste a lot of time and almost certainly fail.
Next up: The Focusing Power of Point of View.
— Mark Barrett