A Matter of Perspective

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective lately. That is, perspective in the literary sense of the term. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to ramble a bit about it.

“Perspective” technically means:

  1. A way of regarding situations, facts, etc, and judging their relative importance
  2. The proper or accurate point of view or the ability to see it; objectivity

In writing, we usually talk about “viewpoint” rather than “perspective.” Viewpoint is divided into 1st person (I), 2nd (you), and 3rd (he/she). But that doesn’t seem to really capture what a “viewpoint” really is. It’s a grammatical definition, and that’s it. Big deal.

For instance, compare the 1st person perspective of Moby Dick with that of Twilight. Sure, it might be the same “viewpoint,” but the “point of view” is hugely different. In one we see the world through the eyes of the enigmatic 19th century Ishmael, in the other through the eyes of a modern teenager. They are as different as they could possibly be. Same perspective. Two totally different… perspectives.

For writers, understanding the perspective of a novel is so much more than just choosing which grammatical form to use. Unless you’re aiming at a 3rd omniscient narrator, you’re going to have to show the reader the world through the viewpoint character’s eyes. The voice of the character becomes part of the voice of the narration, if you will. If Stephenie Meyer had written Twilight a la Moby Dick, it would never have seen the light of day. Or if Herman Melville had written Moby Dick a la Twilight… Well, that’s not a pretty picture.

In Down a Lost Road, the perspective of the story is provided by the main character, Merelin. To tell the story through her words, I had to make it sound like a feisty, outspoken 16-year-old Texan girl was the one speaking — not a *mumble*-year-old adult who’s been through college and then some.

My early versions of the story had Merelin as a 14-year-old…who sounded like a 40-year-old. I’d been reading a lot of classics around that time. Not that that’s a bad thing, but my style adopted some of their tone and that resulted in a completely inappropriate-sounding narrative.

Behold, I shall illustrate. This was my original account of Merelin’s encounter with the Ungulion host, told from a very un-14 perspective:

I got to my feet and wandered in the direction of the camp, oblivious to my peril, oblivious to the light and sounds, oblivious to everything but the knife I carried. I saw the flickering of the fires and the silhouettes of the Ungulion, sitting statue-like around them as if in a tragic observance of some irrevocable past. Towards the center of the camp I saw a cluster of Ungulion, standing in a ring and peering at something lying in their midst. They were chanting, and I saw their arms stretched out to the center of their circle. Some terror woke in me and I quickened my steps, passing the fires and the statue-still forms with the knife still bared gleaming in my hand.

Yeah. I know, right? Eventually I realized that that wasn’t exactly a YA voice. In fact, it wasn’t good writing from any perspective. It was florid and lofty, stilted, and, well, obnoxious. Thinking hard about that during my rewrite, I replaced that passage with this:

I found myself in their camp. No tents. Bonfires. Why were they all sitting around the fires? They couldn’t possibly be cold. Oh God, where did they take him?

Toward the center of the camp a cluster of Ungulion stood in a ring. They were the only ones standing. Chanting. Their arms stretched out to the center of their circle.

No.

I stumbled into a run, still holding [the] knife gleaming in my hand.

Basically, I re-imagined myself as Merelin in that scenario. In such a moment of terror, danger, and deep crisis, there’s no way she would be pondering the fact that she was “oblivious to this” and “oblivious to that.” She just would be. Her perceptions of events would come rapid-fire, punctuated, immediate. That’s what I tried to convey through the fragments, the slightly irrational thoughts mixed with internal dialogue. Hopefully it worked.

As another example of the function of perspective, I recently took the opening of my epic fantasy to a critique. The story begins deep in the perspective of the main character, Braden, then an 8-year-old boy, in his family surroundings. I actually had a few people complain that I didn’t spend enough time describing the scenery or the appearances of the secondary characters.

I found that interesting. If I had described Braden’s appearance, I would have been told that we wouldn’t get those details from that character’s perspective. He wouldn’t comment on what color eyes or hair he has, in other words. But these same critiquers wanted me to go into explicit description of things that Braden would be so familiar with, he would never even think about.

For instance, an 8-year-old boy isn’t going to reflect on the fact that his mother is tall and graceful, with cascading ringlets of fiery red hair — or that he lives in a manor house built in the style of the ancient Andrethi from stones cut in quarries far to the south. Or whatever. A few chapters later I switch to the viewpoint of another boy who is a complete stranger — to Braden and to the area. We get all those descriptions through his eyes, because he has a reason to pay attention.

So, to sum it up — yes, when we think about viewpoint, we have to decide whose point of view the story will be told from. But that means we have to understand that it’s not just a matter of using “he” instead of “I”…but of showing that character’s unique “way of regarding situations, facts, etc, and judging their relative importance.”

A character isn’t just a camera angle, and perspective isn’t just grammatical.

Anyway, that’s my rather long ramble on the topic of perspective. Hopefully, I’ve given my readers some.

In much more exciting news, S.K.’s novel Silesia: The Outworlder is now available on Smashwords!  I’m sure she will have her own blog post to discuss the launch, but I had to beat her to it.  Congrats, S.K.!

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About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

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