Building a Story: Point of View

You can use point of view to minimize the distance between character and reader so the reader identifies strongly with that character. You can also use point of view to build story. This means thinking about point of view as structure. Take a look at two magnificent novels: A Brief History of Killings by Marlon James and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Each author creates a time, place and history, a world that evolves and changes though character point of view. Yet James builds his story world through multiple points of view while Mantel builds hers through only one point of view. How do they do it?

Marlon James tells his story (which centers around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976) from the point of view of over 65 characters. Each character’s voice and world view is unique. What an amazing feat. These voices build a world encompassing Jamaica in the seventies and New York City and Jamaica in the eighties and nineties. But more. As characters’ stories overlap, the effect of using different perspectives in detailing the violent, tumultuous world of drug dealing, smuggling and politics, is powerful. The story becomes a commentary on poverty, racism, class, ambition and hope. As Marlon James employs near stream of consciousness narrative to build a novel around a single thread, the assassination attempt and its ramifications years later, the novel does what great novels do. They tell individual stories to reveal truths about the greater world.

Wolf Hall also contains many characters, but only one person tells the story. Hilary Mantel’s use of Thomas Cromwell’s third-person point of view is so masterful that it creates the impression many characters are telling the story. How so? Hilary Mantel uses so many tricks (craft) they are impossible to detail here, but one of them is to avoid using Thomas Cromwell’s name. Many readers find “he” confusing, but once you accept this novel is written from a single point of view, you can accept everything about other characters. Cromwell details his fellow characters in such rich detail that it leads the reader to believe s/he’s reading a work from an omniscient point of view. What a trick! In this way Hilary Mantel expands the world seen through Cromwell’s eyes to social and political commentary of the times. The result? Hilary Mantel does the same thing as Marlon James does. Each builds a world that reveals socials truths about class, ambition and imperial design.

So two novels, two different time periods, one character’s point of view, over 65 characters’s points of view, this is how great stories are made.

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