In Praise of Head-Hopping
“She had discovered that this was the tragedy of being human: unlike every other living thing, each person lived alone inside themselves, always seeking to build a bridge from soul to soul but never really succeeding, at least not for a few shining moments, now and then.” –Carol Bird, A Home Worth Having, 2020.
The great human paradox. Anyone who has lost a loved one to death—and we all have—knows it is so. All human souls have the grief of loss in common, yet each of us must grieve alone. And because this paradox is so obvious in our lived experience, we try to transcend it. Failing that, which we invariably do, we deny it.
Is that why editors of fiction so often insist that human points of view must always be given in isolation from one another? Is this the reason for proscribing head-hopping?
To clarify: head-hopping is the practice of moving from one character’s point of view to another’s within the same text. Some editors abhor it altogether, insisting that point of view must be consistent throughout an entire work. Those more comfortable with complex fiction will allow for changes of perspective between chapters, usually with an upper limit of perhaps four or five different shifts. Occasionally you’ll run into the enlightened editor who will accept shifts within a chapter, but only if there is a graphic break in the text. This attitude is so commonplace as to have infected critique groups, reviewers and, worst of all, fiction-writing workshops and classes. And it is manifestly, completely, wrong.
Proof that it is wrong lies in some of the best, most successful fiction writing—prizewinning writers and canonical texts included. Not only do some of our most celebrated authors do it, but the success of their works depends on it. Consider my current favorite 19th-century writer in English, Anthony Trollope, and one of his most praised novels, Can You Forgive Her? The title of this, the first of the Palliser series, gives a clue as to why head-hopping is essential to its effectiveness. The reader is asked directly to question his or her judgment of not one, not two, but three flawed but heroines. This of course requires an omniscient narrator, something else that editors today dislike. It also requires us to get inside the heads of these women in order to get a sense of how those flaws result in dysfunctional emotions, decisions and self-perception. More than that, it requires us to understand the thinking of these women in concert with other each other.
We cannot see Alice Vavasor’s horror at suddenly, finally realizing what a mistake she made to throw her lot in with her narcissistic cousin George, unless we can jump into her mind from the minds of those around her. We cannot see the mortification of Kate, George’s sister and enabler, unless we can jump from Alice’s head into Kate’s. We cannot understand the complexity of Alice’s self-condemnation until we understand her intimate interactions with her counterpart, Lady Glencora Palliser, who has done the opposite—escaping a ne’er-do-well narcissist and marrying an upright man, much to her utter misery—until we read their mental states in conversation with one another. We cannot ask, much less answer, the question that the title poses unless we can get into various characters’ heads in actual dialog with each other.
Trollope’s genius is carried forward by many contemporary writers in much this same form. Even writers who take pains to respect separation of points of view by chapter or subchapter will, when necessary, hop between heads. Anne Tyler is exquisitely careful to stick to one point of view per chapter, until she isn’t—when she needs to, she will subtly and briefly slip inside an interlocuter’s head to gauge his or her reaction to the main character. Jane Smiley does the same. Her parodic academic novel, Moo, is a masterpiece of an “ensemble” work that visits among the thoughts and feelings of a score of characters, usually one at a time. Yet a key moment is in the middle of a party in which the point of view suddenly switches to that of a minor character (a fiancée’s self-centered, cranky father) as a way of putting everything in perspective. It’s a brilliant move.
Effective head-hopping is hard. I suspect that’s the reason why the experts caution against it, as if they are convinced that amateur writers couldn’t possibly be up to the task. My friend Carol Bird, whose novel is quoted above, proves them wrong. She navigates masterfully among the consciousnesses of a dozen characters, and her paranormal story is much the richer for it. I’m certain that there are hundreds of other aspiring writers out there who are doing the same. They should be encouraged in their efforts.
Todd S. Garth teaches Spanish and Portuguese Language and Latin American and Spanish cultural studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was the first openly gay faculty member. He is the author of two critical studies of (long dead) Spanish American authors and an enthusiastic reader and commentator of fiction of all kinds. He is currently at work on a historical novel, The Mayor of Newark.