Narrative and point of view in popular fiction
One of my readers emailed me this week, asking for clarity on the narrative and point of view in The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In answer to his question, and to delve deeper into the craft of writing fiction, this article is a general analysis of the work:
PROTAGONIST – the best place to start is to determine for yourself who this is. Sometimes, in complex works of fiction there may be more protagonists or antagonists. In The Alchemist this is limited to one, Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy.
NARRATOR – the narrator is an anonymous, omniscient observer. In other words, the narrator knows everything, sees everything, and is aware of the feelings and thoughts of every character appearing in the story. However, Paulo Coelho chooses to utilise this power carefully and sparingly, and stays for about 90% of the story connected with the emotions of the protagonist.
NARRATIVE, STORYLINE AND FABULA – The parable woven into the story is the search for self, Coelho calls this The Personal Legend, which Santiago believes he will fulfill by journeying to the pyramids in Egypt. On reaching Egypt Santiago realises that what he was looking for was actually there all the time, back home.
POINT OF VIEW – The point of view is third person omniscient, though it does lean towards and exclusive observation of the protagonist, Santiago. Though the point of view gives the writer the freedom to comment on the innermost thoughts and desires of several characters, in this case it remains mostly an objective observer of ancilliary characters and ‘gets inside the head’ of the protagonist.
CONFLICT – for any work of fiction to be gripping and interesting, there must be some form of conflict. Conflict can be external, i.e. between protagonist and another character in the story. It can also be between the protagonist and external elements or circumstances. But in the case of The Alchemist, the conflict is mostly an internal one. Santiago struggles with himself in order to endure whatever it takes to fulfill his life’s purpose. But of course he is confronted with other hardships along the way, and these serve to drive the narrative forward and illustrate the transformation that Santiago undergoes. Though at the end of his physical journey, Santiago realises that the treasure he sought was waiting for him at home, it was not a waste of time. Overcoming obstacles, both internal and external has changed him, given him wisdom and maturity. The physical journey was needed to facilitate the spiritual growth.
In the Alchemist, Coelho has chosen the omniscient observer for his narrator and p.o.v. However, he has trimmed this down to almost exclusively seeing things from the protagonist’s viewpoint. He thus simplifies the narrative.
Given that Coelho’s purpose in all of his books is to facilitate the message, then using a character in this way is useful. Why then, you might ask, did he not choose the first person p.o.v. and narrative? Very simply, this would have compromised his objectivity and the ability to observe the transformation that the protagonist undergoes after dealing with the internal and external challenges and circumstances he encounters on his journey.
Have you read The Alchemist? Did this narrative form work for you? Or have you read another book that approaches the story in a similar way? Let me know in the comments below.
Try writing a chapter using this p.o.v. and see how it feels. It is a common narrative form, easy to adopt. Share your discoveries in the comments box below.
Can you see the difference between this limited form of third person narrative and first person narrative? Check out The Cloths of Heaven. What narrative form did I choose? How does that affect the story? Can you see why I chose that particular p.o.v.?