Have you ever struggled over what point-of-view is going to work best for your narrator? I recently changed a novel manuscript from first person POV (I) to third person (she). The reason for this is my narrator is a deeply flawed character who’s not always so nice, and I feared that, in first person, readers might tire of her.
When studying POV in my MFA program, the book that taught me the most about how to effectively use third person POV was “Belly” by Lisa Selin Davis. Belly is a truly bad character, the kind you don’t want to get too close to.
The story begins when forty-nine year old Belly O’Leary is released from prison after being incarcerated for four years for illegal gambling. The novel takes place in a week that’s packed with so much mayhem I was afraid to ask What next? Argumentative, belligerent, and in complete denial, Belly is near impossible to empathize with, and Davis made a wise choice to put his narrative in third person POV. Otherwise, I think the story would have been a hard sell. This is why:
First person POV is intimate. You’re right inside the head of the narrator, seeing the world as he does. Seeing the world through Belly’s eyes might be interesting, but in reality, readers need distance from a man who, after his daughter tells him the best thing he can do for them is to stop being a terrible father, replies, “‘You know what I’ll do for you? I’ll go downtown and get drunk. Would that help?’”
Upon his release, Belly finds himself dependent on his three grown daughters. The moment he gets off the bus, he picks up a woman half his age while waiting for his married, pregnant daughter, Nora, and her young boys to come for him. During his first week as a free man, he gets drunk instead of looking for work and flirts with his female parole officer. He argues with everyone for the sake of it, steals cigarettes and money from Nora, who’s graciously given him a room in the attic of her house. He berates his daughters, wanders the town in a stupor, and steals Nora’s truck and wrecks it. He brings his cheap-date girlfriend to his room and fucks her so the entire household (including the boys) hears them. On his first day at a new job, he gets in a fist fight and is fired.
Third person POV helped assure me there’s a reason for this story other than shock value.
Even though readers hear Belly’s caustic voice through his limited POV, Davis highlights the distance that third person gives us by separating his inner monologue from the narrative. This allows the reader to be an observer, yet still stay close. When he sees his ex-wife after years of separation at his grandsons’ confirmation, he stares at her, thinking she’s his dead daughter, Shannon. We are witness to this comic, drunken scene, yet privy to his inner thoughts:
Belly put his hand over his mouth—to cover a scream or a laugh he didn’t know. “Holy Shit,” he said, “You’re my wife.”…He leaned back against the dining room table. He felt the world shift beneath him, a hole opened in the earth and everything was falling in. He heard a shout and a few yelps around him, and he thought, the house is falling in. The world is falling in. Where are my grandchildren? Where are my daughters? And he raised himself up, turned to look for them, saw he was covered in something, paint, or gravy, and he heard Nora yell, “Jesus, Belly, you knocked over the whole table,” and he fell. He fell all the way to the floor and lay with his back against the tipped-over table like it was a lawn chair, and he saw the whole ocean moving toward him, the world has fallen in, the Florida ocean, the gulf coast, and his wife in the lawn chair next to him with her umbrella drink, and his three daughters burying the fourth up to her neck in sand.
When reading first person POV, readers are more apt to ask Why is he telling us this story?—and it’s clear that Belly is a man who’d never confide. He doesn’t verbalize his feelings, much less make conversation, so first person POV is not a good fit for this character.
Third person POV also allows Davis to tell the story without Belly getting in the way of some stunning writing. In this scene, he openly grieves, but is so out of touch with his emotions that he doesn’t understand what’s happening:
He turned and looked at his youngest child, her pale stringy hair and her pale eyes, everything about her light against the darkening sky and he felt something strange, some foreign object clogging his throat, I’m giving birth to an egg out my mouth, he thought, and then he coughed and made a sound and he thought, What is happening to me, what is this? and Eliza put her skinny little arms around him and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay Daddy,” and he still didn’t know, he could not see out his left eye and he let his head hang down on her bony shoulder and he shook and her shoulder was wet. It was all over in a minute. Then the sky was dark.
It’s beautiful, but if it was written in first person, it would have been over the top for Belly.
Third person POV created enough distance to get to know Belly without getting in bed with him. The third person narrative also fits well with his character, and gives the author, Davis, room to do more with the story and writing. I began to empathize with this lost soul when I read about the self-loathing he learned at the cruel hand of his father, the pain and loss in his life, and the accidental death of his favorite daughter; Belly even hates himself for liking her the best. He has no tools to handle or label his emotions, yet he wants to be good. In the end, when things begin to turn around, I admired his hard won honesty.
If you’re interested studying POV, or nasty lead characters, I recommend “Belly.” It’s out of print, but used copies are for sale on Amazon, and it’s also available on Kindle.