Thursday, November 16, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Value of Rowling’s Omniscient Third Person

It’s my opinion that readers crave as few points of view as possible. I prefer either first person or third person that’s strictly limited to one head. But writers love to skip from head to head, because it’s more convenient to tell a story that way, and Rowling is no exception. The first chapter begins in Mr. Dursley’s POV, then switches to McGonagall’s, then to Dumbledore, and only in Chapter 2 do we switch to Harry, where we will remain for most of the rest of the book.

But there’s also a fourth POV here, and it’s the one that makes all the others work: Rowling’s own. The very first time we leave a POV, as Mr. Dursley goes to sleep, on our way out the window to McGonagall, we pause for a one sentence paragraph where Rowling inserts her own voice.

The POV isn’t just idly wandering from one character to the next, our goddess is plucking it away from one character, commenting directly to us about what a fool he is, and then safely setting us back down in the POV of McGonagall.

In the above excerpt, “How very wrong he was,” makes all the difference. It establishes that we have omniscient third-person narration, and that our omniscient third-person narrator might sometimes, very rarely, have something to say directly to us. This isn’t Harry’s book, it’s J. K. Rowling’s, and she’s going to show some character herself.

Even before this, Mr. Dursley’s thoughts aren’t necessarily summarized in the way he would summarize his own thoughts, but rather in the way that Rowling would:
  • Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren’t young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak!
That “why” is key. It diminishes Mr. Dursley. It’s also a subtle hint that we’re reading a children’s book, despite the adult characters. It sounds like the narrative voice of a picture book. Even when narrating our POV character’s thoughts, Rowling’s omniscient narration is making itself heard.


James Kennedy said...

This is some great close reading, Matt, bravo! Rowling employs this powerful and appealing technique less and less as the books go on. Perhaps rightly, because she has the reader's trust at that point. But in the early chapters of the first book, she probably realized it was crucial to establish trust between reader and storyteller -- a point that you rightfully emphasize. Using the technique you point out here assures us that the invisible storyteller is a wise person who knows what's up; you can feel secure trusting her judgements.

There's a lot of this technique in the Narnia books too. Lewis' narrator often chimes in to say stuff like "now we come to one of the nastiest parts of the story" or "have you ever..?" Not many people do this anymore, this narrator's implicit appeal to a common knowledge or sensibility. As you've pointed out, nowadays too many authors like to write novels as if they're screenplays, and thus they rob themselves of this very powerful and pleasurable device.

What you're citing is also a species of "free indirect style," but as I've gone on ad nauseum on free indirect style in earlier posts, I'll leave that point alone and take it as read.

Vree said...

I feel like you're missing the point here. This is an intro chapter, showing many similarities with the Hitchhiker's Guide intro you've analyzed on this blog before. And these book introductions actually have a lot of lifting to do:
- establishing the author's own voice as a storyteller, as well as the tone and style we can expect from them (mercilessly blunt, funny & quirky, chummy like they're telling you a private secret etc.) All that must come through VERY INTENSELY, moreso than it ever might again, during those opening paragraphs.
- jumping between POVs (including other characters AND the omniscient author) before settling on the main character. If HtHG opened with a normal guy and house we'd find it boring because we'd have no expectations for the story. But since it comes after a humorous and large-scale opening narration, it becomes a breather that only infuses us with a sense of realism and identifying with the main character. HP1 opening with Mr. Dursley "the archetypal muggle" poked fun of by the narrator serves much the same purpose. The ENTIRE series past this point will be told from Harry's POV. The only times we will shift the POV even slightly would be when Harry can see and empathize with someone (like Hermione); adults' inner thoughts will never be shown because they'd be distant characters for Harry (even Dumbledore).