The Book Diva’s Reads is pleased to host a visit by Mark de Castrique, author of Risky Undertaking. Mr. de Castrique will be discussing narrative point of view as a reader and as a writer.
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 stories. As a writer who primarily tells his stories in first person, 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.
But, to be fair, point of view should 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. 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.
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, especially when that world is unfamiliar. My latest Buryin’ Barry novel, Risky Undertaking, is set on the Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina. Part of what occurs in the novel involves Barry encountering unique cultural traditions as well as complicated working relationships between sovereign tribal police and off-reservation law enforcement. I wanted those experiences to be filtered through Barry’s perspective so his telling provides a personal narrative journey into the world of the Cherokee.
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. I chose third person for my thriller, The 13th Target, for that reason.
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, third person can 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 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.
About the author:
Mark de Castrique is the author of the critically acclaimed Barry Clayton and Sam Blackman mystery series, both set in his native North Carolina mountains. He is also the author of the D.C. political thriller, The 13th Target, as well as mysteries for Young Adults.
Catch Up with Mark:
Risky Undertaking by Mark de Castrique
ISBN: 9781464203060 (paperback)
ISBN: 9781464203091 (ebook)
ASIN: B00OPEFSCC (Kindle version)
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
When Cherokee burial remains are unearthed on the site expanding a local cemetery, the dual occupations of Barry Clayton, part-time deputy and full-time undertaker, collide. Then, during the interment of the wife of one of Gainesboro, North Carolina’s most prominent citizens, Cherokee activist Jimmy Panther leads a protest. Words and fists fly. When Panther turns up executed on the grave of the deceased woman, Barry is forced to confront her family as the chief suspects. But the case lurches in a new direction with the arrival of Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkin’s Army pal, Boston cop Kevin Malone. He’s on the trail of a Boston hit man who arrived at the Cherokee reservation only days before the murder. Malone is convinced his quarry is the triggerman. But who paid him? And why?
The accelerating investigation draws Barry onto the reservation where Panther’s efforts to preserve Cherokee traditions threatened the development of a new casino, a casino bringing millions of dollars of construction plus huge yearly payouts to every member of the tribe. Leading an unlikely team—his childhood nemesis Archie Donovan and his elderly fellow undertaker Uncle Wayne—Barry goes undercover. But the stakes are higher than he realized in this risky undertaking. And the life of a Cherokee boy becomes the wager. Barry must play his cards very carefully…
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