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Historical Fiction: History You Can Live Inside

Understanding point-of-view: circles of consciousness

Point of view is one of the most important tools in your toolkit, and the basic concept isn't so hard to get your brain round (click here if you want a quick revision course). But in

"No, it's nothing," said Sally airily, and John wondered if she were lying. He stared out of the window, and Sally closed the kitchen drawer with a snap. She poured herself more coffee and sat down, offering up a little prayer that John wouldn't ask why the bank was writing to her separately.

is Sally closed the kitchen drawer with a snap in John's or Sally's point of view? We've been in John's, we're on our way to Sally's, but what's this? The answer I've always given is that it's in both their points of view - the drawer-closing is something both of them are aware of, and the snap could be either of their perceptions. Of course it's also in the external (i.e. third person) narrator's point-of-view. But my saying that the answer is that there isn't an answer doesn't give you much to hold on to. The thing is, point-of-view is often discussed as an either/or thing: you chose your viewpoint character, and then a passage must be definable as either Sally's, or John's. True, an external narrator can know things that neither of them do, but clearly one of the two in the kitchen experiences the drawer-closing as a snap, so it's not quite that.

But then, in my post about ten ways to change point of view, I had a small revelation. How about thinking about a character's point-of-view not as an either-or, inside-or-outside, but as a circle of that character's consciousness? Think about it as yourself:

  1. The inside of your mind and body is right in the centre of the circle: your feeling and thinking, emotions and thoughts, the things you imagine and dream of, your totally subjective experience. Then there's
  2. your bodily sense of yourself - taste, stomach, physical aches and pleasures - which link you to the outer world which
  3. is made of what you can perceive through your senses beyond your borders: touch - smell - sight- hearing: each sense has a different range. Then there's
  4. what you know about things you're not in direct physical contact with at the moment: places, times and people that you have experienced directly at other times. Next come
  5. the places, times and people that you know about but have never experienced directly, although of course second-hand experience mediated by the media (yes, that is why it's called that) can give you a sense that you been there, done that;
  6. but as we get to the outer rim of the circle, there's a loop back inwards, because we have imaginations: we can create an imagined sense of those never-experienced places, times and people, by drawing on things we have experienced (which is also - not coincidentally - how fiction writers get readers to re-create mentally things which never happened at all, as if they did)

And, obviously, if there are several characters present in a scene, the circles of each character's consciousness will overlap.  So there are things which are within several characters' consciousnesses, although each will experience them differently. Here free indirect style can come in so handy, because built into it is the irony of the gap between subjective experience and objective reality. What's more, working with these circles makes changing point of view successfully very simple, as my post about it suggests.

And within that inner consciousness - that subjective self - for the purposes of fiction if not philosophy we should include the unconscious: the drives and fears and mental reflexes which we're not aware of, but which also shape how we feel and behave. Obviously characters-in-action are not aware of their unconscious, but as the teller of their own story a character-narrator may realise it later and evoke it for the reader. And of course an external narrator can tell us about such things, as A S Byatt has said: it's one of the big advantages of working with a knowledgeable narrator as she does.

The narrator's circle of consciousness is as big and oddly-shaped as you like: you, as the writer, get to decide which characters' circles the narrator has access to and how deeply: the narrator is as privileged, as knowledgeable, as getting-on-for-omniscient, as you choose to make it. And, of course, their circle can include things which no character is aware of.

Have you noticed that this all parallels rather neatly our sense of psychic distance - of narrative distance - in storytelling? Evoking, close-up, the very centre of a character's subjective experience will tend to need free indirect style, or even stream of consciousness. The narrator telling us things which are beyond or below characters' consciousness might require us to come further out, not only when the narrator knows that the tsunami is building up out in the Pacific, but also when only the narrator knows that the mother actually hates the adopted child she and everyone else believes she loves. So the radius of the circle, from inner consciousness to remote reality, isn't just another word for the range of narrative distance, any more than either is just another word for the spectrum from showing to telling, but they're all available to you as ways of thinking about how to tell your story. 

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