POV and the Emotions of the Narrator

Have you ever noticed how good British actors are in general? Director Ang Lee once marveled “Can everyone in Britain act?” Even in the primitive confines of the early movie era, when screen acting was less about performing and more about getting across the thick barrier of film-to-audience,  some of the most role defining actors were English. Of course, I am talking about Nigel Bruce. While Basil Rathborne defined Sherlock Holmes for a generation, his co-star Nigel Bruce defined Dr. Watson for eternity. The Internet Movie Database has this to say about him.

“Nigel was, from the beginning, typecast as bumbling English aristocrats, military types or drawing room society snobs and, within the narrow parameters of his range, he was very, very good at playing these parts.”

Yes he did seem to have “narrow range”, but maybe that was what was required of him. He may have been able to play a wider range of emotions if he was ever called to do so, but he seemed content at playing within his parameters until his regrettably early death. But if he had such narrow range, why did he strike us as such a perfect Dr. Watson?

Almost all the stories of Sherlock Holmes, with a few exceptions, are told through the eyes of Dr. James Watson. This narrator, a down-to-earth former military doctor with little worldly knowledge outside of his profession, is forever stuck in the mentality of his social class, and his emotions range between provoked, astonished, irritated and aloof, mostly aloof until he is astonished. This is one narrator who never sees it coming.

A novel must have a point of view, and it is an inconvenient fact that a point of view sometimes has emotions. Not every narrator is as emotionally blank as Dr. Watson. Sometimes, the feelings of the narrator drives the story. Sometimes the emotional vantage point of the narrator simply will not accommodate the story elements. Billy Bathgate is the story about the fall of the gangster Dutch Schultz as told by a young boy. It is a coming-of-age tale about a boy growing up through his exposure to the prohibition era mob, so the narrator is the protagonist. His feelings matter. But, he is emotionally subdued and cautious. He has a reason to be. He is living among vicious gangsters who might slit his throat for the slightest provocation. So the narrator is emotionally walking on eggs throughout the story. (Why the movie adaptation was such a mess is a story for another time.)

What if Billy Bathgate was written from the point of view of Dutch Schultz? He was an emotionally volatile man who could be smiling and laughing, apparently having a good time, and seconds later will fly into an uncontrollable rage and smash a scull with an ashtray. It would be a mistake to try to tell a story from his vantage point. If you tried, the sudden emotional ups and downs, the instantaneous self-justifications, the sudden flips from joy to rage and back again to joy, will likely confuse and turn off the reader. If you choose such a narrator, you better have a good reason.

That is not to say that unstable narrators cannot make good novels. Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney have all excelled at this. To say nothing of William Burroughs. But a narrator is best when he has a narrow emotional range. That is why Nigel Bruce strikes us as the perfect Dr. Watson. Always either aloof or astonished, sometimes irritated but never gravely insulted, never losing composure even in the face of his own evident impotence, Dr. James Watson, as embodied by Nigel Bruce, is the perfect narrator for Sherlock Holmes.

The bottom line is, the emotional fluctuations of your narrator, your point of view, is something you have to be conscious about when you write your novel. I cannot find a book on writing that tells you about how to craft such a narrator, but such things are important. E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate had a good reason to walk on eggs emotionally. Most other stories just deal with it in a seat-of-the-pants sort of way. But when you are editing your novel and it is not going well, maybe this is the part that is making things muddy. The story elements you are trying to tell does not match the emotional fluctuations of the narrator.

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