In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood states “omniscience is almost impossible.” The point of this post isn’t to argue with Wood, but rather to understand his point of view on point of view. I’m drafting my first novel and am curious how writers such as James Joyce, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf, to paraphrase Wood, bend the narrative around a character.
“Omniscience,” Wood writes, “becomes a kind of secret sharing.” He calls the term “free indirect style,” which is also known as close third person POV.
Here’s an example from How Fiction Works: “He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?” According to Wood, the above is an example of free indirect speech or style, because the husband’s internal speech or thought is free of “he wondered” or “he thought” or other authorial tags. The effect is the character appears to own the words.
According to Wood, free indirect style:
- Is the most powerful when hardly visible or audible
- Allows words to belong to both the character and the author
- Empowers readers to see through the character’s eyes and language and also through the author’s eyes and language
- Bridges the gap between author and character, while drawing attention to the gap’s distance
Here’s another example Wood uses: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” According to Wood, the word “stupid” is what makes this sentence written in free indirect style. The author wouldn’t likely call his or her character stupid. If the author wrote this sentence in first person, the sentence would be longer and would’ve lost “the complicated presence of the author.” Free indirect style allows the word “stupid” to belong to the author and the character, enabling readers to “inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”
This is heady stuff. Yet I feel compelled to try free indirect style as I write my second novel draft.