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A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in writing.
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George Eliot

Image by Steve Hunnisett via Flickr

While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

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