Point of View, Body Narrative and Jamaica Kincaid

Topic Progress:

How well do you know your characters? How well do your characters know themselves? To answer these questions, first consider how we, as real, living, breathing human beings, get to know others. Essentially, we try to see the world, for a short time, through another’s point of view. In narrative, this is a necessary tool. The writer must constantly try to see the world through his/her characters’ points of view. However, how often do we consider our characters through multiple points of view? This week, we will focus on point of view and body narrative as a means toward knowing our characters better. First, let’s briefly review:


Point of View

“The perspective from which people, events, and other details in a work of fiction are viewed; also called focus, though the term point of view is sometimes used to include both focus and voice. The point of view is said to be limited when we see things only from one character’s perspective; it is said to be omniscient or unlimited when we get the perspective of multiple characters:

Narrator: A narrator or narration is said to be internal when the narrator is a character within the work, telling the story to an equally fictional auditor or listener; internal narrators are usually first- or second-person narrators (see below). A narrator or narration is instead said to be external when the narrator is not a character. A first-person narrator is an internal narrator who consistently refers to himself or herself using the first-person pronoun (or, infrequently, we). A second-person narrator consistently uses the second-person pronoun you (a very uncommon technique). A third-person narrator uses third-person pronouns such as shehetheyit, and so on; third-person narrators are almost always external narrators. Third-person narrators are said to be omniscient (literally, “all-knowing”) when they describe the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters; they are said to be limited when they relate the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of only one character (the central consciousness) [this is often called subjective third by writers]. If a work encourages us to view a narrator’s account of events with suspicion, the narrator (usually first-person) is called unreliable. An intrusive narrator is a third-person narrator who occasionally disrupts his or her narrative to speak directly to the reader or audience in what is sometimes called direct address.” (Norton).


Body Narrative

A narrative based in the bodily experiences—physical, emotional and more—of a central subject (personal essay or poetry) or character (fiction). Body narrative is a growing trend in not only artistic venues but also medicinal. “Developed at Columbia University in 2000, ‘Narrative Medicine’ fortifies clinical practice with the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by stories of illness. We realize that the care of the sick unfolds in stories, and we recognize that the central event of health care is for a patient to give an account of self and a clinician to skillfully receive it” (Columbia University Program of Narrative Medicine).

Narrative: “A story, whether fictional or true and in prose or verse, related by a narrator or narrators (rather than acted out onstage, as in drama). A frame narrative is a narrative that recounts the telling of another narrative or story that thus ‘frames’ the inner or framed narrative. An example is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ in which an anonymous third-person narrator recounts how an old sailor comes to tell a young wedding guest the story of his adventures at sea.” (Norton).


Writing Assignment: Point of View and Body Narrative

For your writing focus this week, choose one character from a story you’ve already written as your focus character. Find an excerpt in the story that is particularly important to the character. Perhaps, it is an introductory scene or a climactic scene. Now, you are going to do two things:

  1. Rewrite the scene in a different point of view. I suggest first-person or third-person. You can do second-person, of course, but first-person and third are often very helpful in giving the writer more details about the character.
  2. In this rewrite, you are also going to explore the character’s bodily experience within the scene. Pay attention to how the character’s body feels, both physically and emotionally. Is the air cold, are his/her muscle’s tense, is s/he thirsty, hungry, irritated, is there a blister on the sole of his/her foot, is there a cold coming on…?

In any given scene, there is the scene atmosphere, and then there is the body atmosphere of each individual character within that scene. The way a character’s body atmosphere interacts with the scene atmosphere can be incredibly brilliant and can add an additional level of irony.

For instance: Let’s say the scene includes a family sitting down to Sunday dinner. The places are set perfectly. Everyone is dressed perfectly. The scene is perfect and familial. There are details that the reader knows about all the family members that the other family members do not know. The reader knows that two of the characters have just secretly buried a body in the backyard. One member has secretly and recently become a heroin addict and cannot find her last heroin stash because another member, who has never taken drugs before, has taken the last heroin injection just to spite her sister and teach her a lesson. Another member has decided to join a convent and the last member has been nursing a blister on his big toe for two days. The blister is huge and ready to burst. He sits at the head of the table and listens and watches as his family plays out the niceties of Sunday family dinner, a tableau of togetherness, all the while, this blister is bulbous and weird on his toe. If he puts too much pressure on the blister, it will surely burst and then it will be done but it will also turn from a weird bulbous irritation into a raw, open and painful sore. Still, the urge to bust the blister is too much to bear. In this character’s body narrative of the toe blister, the dramatic tension of the family’s secrets are brought to a personal and immediate level while retaining the integrity of the reader’s secret knowledge of each family member. The reader waits in anticipation as to how the “family blister” will bust. Body narrative and point of view shifts can quickly turn a macro-view of a family, town, community, etc. into a very personal and digestible scene.


Reading Assignment: First-Person Body Narrative

by Jamaica Kincaid

How soft is the blackness as it falls. It falls in silence and yet it is deafening, for no other sound except the blackness falling can be heard. The blackness falls like soot from a lamp with an untrimmed wick. The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The blackness is not the earth, though I walk on it. The blackness is not water or food, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins. The blackness enters my many-tiered spaces and soon the significant word and event recede and eventually vanish: in this way I am annihilated and my form becomes formless and I am absorbed into a vastness of free-flowing matter. In the blackness, then, I have been erased. I can no longer say my own name. I can no longer point to myself and say “I.” In the blackness my voice is silent. First, then, I have been my individual self, carefully banishing randomness from my existence, then I am swallowed up in the blackness so that I am one with it….

Read the full story in Jamaica Kincaid’s collection, At the Bottom of the River


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