What’s the Point?
by Mark de Castrique
A friend of mine was standing in line at the sales register of a local bookstore. The woman in front of her was checking out, and the clerk made a suggestion for a novel. She handed her customer a display copy and the woman quickly thumbed through a few pages. “Oh, this is written in first-person. I don’t read first-person.” She pushed the book aside.
“What?” I exclaimed when my friend related the incident. “She just threw out Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, not to mention that icon of all mystery detectives, Sherlock Holmes.”
What was the point for making such a sweeping, excluding statement? The point was for some reason the first-person point-of-view kept this woman out of all first-person stories. She refused to allow herself to believe that a character could be talking to her, the reader. As a writer, I believe point-of-view should have the opposite effect. It draws the reader into the story through the connection established between the narrator and reader. For me, first-person is the most intimate and personal form of storytelling because a character is inviting the reader to share his or her experiences.
But point-of-view should always be chosen for its contribution to the impact a story has on the reader. Thus, there are objective reasons for choosing from a variety of subjective perspectives. As a writer of a particular story, do you want your reader to know more than your protagonist or discover revelations along with her or him? Going back to my English grad school days, I learned point-of-view is a distance set between a narrator and the story and thereby a distance set between the reader and the story. It provides a place for both the narrator and the reader to stand. That place should be consistent and not make the reader feel unfairly manipulated.
First-person in a traditional detective novel puts the reader inside the head of one character and one character only—usually the detective with great exceptions like the ever-faithful Dr. Watson. The reader discovers evidence and corresponding solutions along with the detective. As a writer, I’ve found first-person provides an easier entry into my character’s world, and I hope the entry is as easy for the reader, especially in my two series where a bond can be created between reader and character-narrator across multiple novels.
I realize first-person point-of-view isn’t the only and certainly not the most prolific narrative device. Third-person opens up limitless options for taking the reader into multiple minds and locations not privy to the protagonist. For the thriller, third-person sets up the suspense when the reader knows more than the protagonist and is well aware of the danger lurking ahead. For that reason, I chose third-person for my thrillers, The 13th Target, and The Singularity Race.
Yet, there is not just one point-of-view labeled third-person. This plurality of viewpoints is both the strength and potential weakness of third-person. To keep me immersed in the story to the desired extent that I forget I’m reading, the narrative perspective needs to be consistent. Otherwise, the perspective becomes overly manipulative and frustrating. Information and character thoughts are inconsistently revealed and withheld. For example, when a narrative omniscient voice describing, not only the actions but thoughts of each character suddenly and arbitrarily withholds vital information like the message the detective reads on the bloody note clutched in a murdered man’s hand, then the reader has a right to scream foul. The writer didn’t play fair. It might be a good cliffhanger for the end of a chapter, but not if it’s kept from the reader until the end of the novel.
Third-person can also be a close third-person. The story stays with the view of one character, but no thoughts are revealed for any characters. This point of view is used masterfully by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade appears in every scene, but the narrative style is one of objective description only, like a camera following Spade throughout the whole story. If you read the novel with point-of-view in mind, you’ll become aware of how often the descriptions are of characters’ eyes. These “windows of the soul” are as close as Hammett gets to revealing internal thoughts. Why? Because Hammett played absolutely fair with his readers! At the dramatic conclusion, the culprits come to realize they had misjudged what was motivating Sam Spade. But by keeping Sam’s viewpoint free of his thoughts, Hammett surprised the reader as well. The impact was heightened because Hammett not only wrote a great novel; he knew how to tell it with the most powerful point-of-view and he kept that view consistent.
So, point of view isn’t arbitrary. Whether it’s close third-person like Hammett’s, or limited to the thoughts of certain characters, or omniscient in all regards including narrator opinions, the choice should be made in service to the story and in service to the reader. How a story is told is inseparable from the story itself.
Which brings me back to the woman in the bookstore. In my opinion, she separated point-of-view from the potential power that the author’s narrative style brought for the most impactful way to experience the story. She built the first-person point-of-view into a wall and refused to accept it as the author’s gateway into the world he or she created.
And that, my friend, was the author’s point to begin with.
Mark was born in Hendersonville, NC, near Asheville. He went straight from the hospital to the funeral home where his father was the funeral director and the family lived upstairs. The unusual setting sparked his popular Barry Clayton series and launched his mystery-writing career.
Mark is the author of eighteen novels: seven set in the fictional NC mountain town of Gainesboro, six set in Asheville, two in Washington D.C., one science thriller in the year 2030, and two mysteries written for Middle Graders.
His novels have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. The CHICAGO TRIBUNE wrote, “As important and as impressive as the author’s narrative skills are the subtle ways he captures the geography – both physical and human – of a unique part of the American South.”
Mark is a veteran of the broadcast and film production business. In Washington D.C., he directed numerous news and public affairs programs and received an EMMY Award for his documentary film work.
Mark lives in Charlotte, but he and his wife Linda can be often found in the NC mountains or the nation’s capital.