Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't Take His Word For It

The other day I was editing a scene I had written when I came across a mistake that seemed to have slipped by me a few times. The problem lies in the point of view, which is told in close third person through the eyes of the main character, Ovid. See if you can spot the error:

Ovid’s voice, as he so marvelously discovered after the fact, bounced cleanly in the ceramic box and reverberated the steel in the piercing manner of a tuning fork. The ring momentarily broke the rhythm of the kitchen as all the cooks stopped their work to look up at him. Behind Ovid, the back door clacked against its frame. Curiosity seemed have bested the dishwasher, who was now standing in the doorway, his lips sticky with mango juice.

Did you catch it? If you said “sticky” was the problem, give yourself a big pat on the back. For those of you who aren’t sure why this is a problem, picture yourself in Ovid’s shoes for a minute. The dishwasher walks in with mango juice on his lips. Short of kissing him, how is it that Ovid knows his lips are sticky? Sure, we know from our own mango-eating experiences that mango juice can be sticky, but saying so is making an assumption. Ovid cannot know the dishwasher’s lips are sticky because the word sticky denotes a sense of touch. All Ovid can do is look, so I changed sticky to shiny. Problem solved.

Point of view errors are among the easiest mistakes to make in fiction. Why? As an author, you can easily slip in and out of the heads of all the characters, forgetting that your characters cannot do so with each other (unless, of course, you’re writing sci-fi). Sometimes, the errors are sensory in nature, but more often, they involve thoughts. For example, in an earlier scene, Ovid is crossing a dark parking lot behind the restaurant, trying not to be noticed, when he is spotted by the dishwasher who is taking a break by the back door. How does Ovid know the boy has spotted him? Because he cranes his neck and is looking in the old man’s direction. If you’re not careful, it would be easy to write the following sentence:

The boy recognized Ovid or at least knew about the car. He obviously realized something suspicious was going on.

The above sentence would work fine if I had an omniscient narrator. However, since this is in close third, the lines are a problem because they contain assumptions stated as fact. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with one character guessing what another character is thinking, just be sure to let the reader know that what is being stated is an assumption, not fact. Our perceptions color everything we see, so the character’s conclusions may or may not be correct. Here is a better way to write the above example:

The boy must have recognized Ovid or at the very least knew about the car—knew enough, it seemed, to realize something suspicious was going on.

By using phrases such as “must have” and “it seemed”, we are notifying the reader that the following is merely the character’s perception and must be taken with a grain of salt.

One could say that such distinctions are picky and would largely go unnoticed by the reader, but I would argue that it is precisely these distinctions and careful attention to detail that elevate a work of fiction.

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