Monday, January 24, 2011

Subjective Point of View: expressing judgment with adverbs and verbs

I've been tracking a number of discussion threads recently about point of view and narrative distance. I've seen advice in several contexts that essentially says, "in order to get close to the perspective of your third person point of view character, remove filter words like thought, saw, heard, felt, wondered, etc."

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.

This is very good advice. Removing the filter word takes the actual event and promotes it up from a subordinate clause to the main one, thus giving it more immediacy. However, it's good to be careful in your execution, because one of the functions of these filter words is to create a link between the character and a particular observation (because with the filter word, your character is the subject of the sentence).

If you remove filter words, your sentences won't have the distance that the filter words created, but neither will they necessarily have any markers directly connecting them to your pov character (since the pronouns are gone). If you have already created a really strong sense of intimacy in point of view (through voice or other means), this can work just fine. If your point of view is already less intimate, though, you may find you're losing a sense of connection to the character - falling into a more "neutral-description" mode suggestive of an independent narrator.

Fortunately, there are some great grammatical tools available for creating a connection between your character and his/her perceptions: evidential adverbs (1, 2), and modal verbs. These are fantastic for a writer striving to achieve subjective point of view, because they express the character's judgment of events.

Let's get specific.

Evidential adverbs are adverbs that express certainty or uncertainty. They include such adverbs as: obviously, clearly, evidently, surely, no doubt, of course, naturally, probably, likely, etc. I'm sure you can think of more than I can list here. There are lots of them!

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that change the meaning of the verbs they sit next to, in a very particular way. The nine modal verbs and their definitions are below (this list comes from a terrific article that you may want to read in depth at Bright Hub):
  • can – ability, permission, possibility, request
  • could – ability, permission, possibility, request, suggestion
  • may – permission, probability, request
  • might – possibility, probability, suggestion
  • must – deduction, necessity, obligation, prohibition
  • shall – decision, future, offer, question, suggestion
  • should – advice, necessity, prediction, recommendation
  • will – decision, future, intention, offer, prediction, promise, suggestion
  • would – conditional, habit, invitation, permission, preference, request, question, suggestion
There are also expressions, like have to and it's impossible to, etc. which serve this purpose.

Both the adverbs and the modal verbs are doing something - by their very nature - that we want to do: drawing a reference back to someone who chooses them. Thus, even without the subject pronoun present, the modals give us a sense that the character is still there. If he/she were not there, it would be grammatically nonsensical for these words to appear. Very good news for us.

Of course, if we are to use evidentials and modals properly, it means we have to know what our characters think and feel about what is happening - but to my mind, that is never a bad thing! I'll return to the above examples, and then add a couple of adverb/verb judgments:

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
With adverb #1:
She entered the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink.
(This person evaluates the look of her garment as she enters. Note that "look like" can be independently evaluated; "obviously" is necessarily subjective)
With adverb #2:
Of course she entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
(This person evaluates the predictability of her action as she enters.)
With adverbs and modal verb #1:
Of course she had to enter the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink. (This person isn't happy about her entry and thinks the stole is pure show-offishness on her part)
With adverbs and modal verb #2:
She must have entered the room - the smell of her mink stole was unmistakable. (This person is deducing that she has entered the room and commenting on how the deduction was made.)

I hope this gives you some ideas about what you might be able to do to make your point of view feel more subjective and closer to your character. When you use modal verbs and adverbs, you're not always saying precisely the same thing that you might be without them - but very often, what you can say becomes more interesting (and your character just might, too!)

Play around with this, and experiment. You could discover some fascinating subjective results.