Point of View and Perspective
Let’s consider rain.
It’s a simple thing, really – a light shower of rain. To the meteorologist, rain is a form of precipitation which consists of drops of liquid forming when water vapor collects in the atmosphere.
To a farmer, rain is a blessing, coming after a dry month to give his thirsty corn a good drink and help it grow into a bumper crop. To a golfer, rain is a nuisance, keeping carts off the course and interfering with his weekly game. To an eight-year-old, rain is the angels peeing. (In a few years, when she learns political correctness, rain may be the angels crying – but I’m not betting on it.) To a broken-hearted teenager, rain is a symbol of everything that’s going wrong in her life – the boy who doesn’t talk to her, the fight with her best friend, the impossible algebra test. To a woman with a leak in her roof…
I could go on. But the point is, all of these reactions are in response to exactly the same light shower of rain. The difference lies in the point of view and the perspective.
Point of view and perspective
Point of view and perspective fit together so closely that we often don’t think of them as separate entities. In fact, however, they are different, and the distinction is an important one.
Point of view is the angle from which we view a scene. When we use the POV of a particular character, it’s like sitting on that character’s shoulder so we can see what he sees, hear what he hears.
Perspective is the take of that particular character on what’s going on around him. When we use the perspective of a particular character, we’re no longer sitting on his shoulder– we’re inside him, wearing him like a suit of clothes, feeling what he feels and reacting as he reacts.
And that’s the key – what HE feels. How HE reacts. Not what I, the author, would feel and do – and that’s where we often trip ourselves up. Because I’m a middle-class, middle-aged woman raised in traditional Middle America, unless I stop to think – and think hard – I’m apt to see things through the veil of my morals, my standards, my experience, my beliefs, my upbringing. For instance, I was raised on a farm, so when we’re talking about rain, I have more sympathy with the farmer than with the golfer (except for that week when I was anxiously waiting for the roofer to show up).
When I reach for a comparison or an image, the first thing that comes to my mind is from my own experience. It doesn’t occur to me to use a runner’s high as a metaphor, because I don’t run. I don’t equate dodging a bad guy with playing Dungeons & Dragons, because I’ve never indulged in the game. I don’t compare a highly emotional moment to opera, because I don’t feel the music.
But some of my characters would– because they run, enjoy fantasy role-playing games, and drown themselves in opera. And so, when I’m writing from their perspective – telling a story as they see it, as they react to what’s going on around them– I have to think of running, Dungeons & Dragons, and opera too.
Perspective not only includes what the character sees and thinks, but how he or she expresses it – in words, thoughts, and actions. And that will be different depending on the character’s previous experience, job, background, gender, attitude at the moment, and depth of feeling about the subject.
Writing from a character’s perspective – as opposed to just his point of view – is much more challenging. What would this character notice? What would he or she think? What comparisons or images would come naturally to mind to this character? And, when filtered through this character’s experience, how would those observations come out?
Let’s look at a single brief scene which from two very different perspectives. In Baby, You’re Mine! (Harlequin Romance, 1997) my hero has just been saddled with infant Sam while the heroine – an innocent bystander – tries not to get involved. Both of these short passages are in the book, so first we get Kady’s take on the situation. Then we immediately switch to Devlin’s point of view and see his reaction to the same incidents.
She held the baby out to Devlin – or she tried to. One tiny hand seized her earring, the other clutched with a death’s grip at her black silk blouse, and a shriek of surprising power almost deafened her.
Devlin folded his arms across his chest. “Sounds a little like a fire engine, doesn’t he?” His voice was mild. “He appears to have decided he’s yours.”….
The baby wailed and clutched at her hair, at her jacket, at her nose, till Kady gave up and nestled him close once more. Sam buried his face in her shoulder, hiccuped once, and was silent.
“So,” Devlin said cheerfully, “what were you telling me about your plans?”
Suddenly Kady felt a little like howling herself.
What he needed, Devlin thought in desperation, was some time… But time to think was the one thing the fates were obviously going to deny him. Caught as he was between a woman with a caustic tongue and an infant boy with lungs the size of Lake Michigan, Devlin might as well wish for the moon as for a little quiet.And now, he realized with dread, Kady was trying to hand him the kid…. What was he supposed to do if she walked out and left him with a fuzzy-haired rug rat on his hands?
But Sam obviously had other ideas…. Devlin watched one tiny hand grab for Kady’s earring.
It was funny Devlin hadn’t noticed her earrings before. The dangling bits of gold were the most feminine part of her attire.
The infant’s other hand clutched Kady’s black blouse, tugging at the neckline, and suddenly Devlin found himself looking down at a stunning display of cleavage and the edge of a red lace bra.
Red lace, he thought delightedly. So the prim and proper Miss Bishop had a decidedly romantic streak under that tailored facade! Not that he had either time or energy for thinking about that just now. He guessed he had about three minutes to convince her to stay. And if he didn’t succeed….
“So, what were you telling me about your plans?” he asked. “Because it looks as if Sam has other ideas.”
Kady sees Devlin as playful and teasing, but he’s feeling desperate, not cheerful. She sees a baby in need of nurturing; he sees a fuzzy-haired rug rat. She’s concentrating on the infant; he’s inspecting her lingerie. Stereotypical? Perhaps – but true to life nonetheless, and appropriate for these characters at this moment.
What would your character think and feel, at this time, in this place? What would he notice? How would he express himself? What would the rhythms of his speech be? What words does he choose? What images does he use to make a point?
In many stories, characters not only think and talk as the author would, but they think and talk just like each other. If the hero thinks, “She hasn’t got a clue,” and a few pages later the heroine thinks, “He hasn’t got a clue,” it’s harder for the reader to view them as separate people. Furthermore, when characters think and talk in similar patterns, or use the same images, it’s a reminder that one person created both characters – and so it’s difficult for the reader to dive into the magic and forget that it’s only a story.
Choosing images and comparisons which are accurate, pertinent, and not stereotypical isn’t easy. Not all educated people will quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. Not all guys are into sports – so not every single male will turn automatically to baseball or NASCAR for a reference. (I must admit, though, that one of the most memorable bits of perspective I’ve ever encountered was a guy who said he slowed down his lovemaking to his partner’s satisfaction by pretending he was downshifting on a racetrack’s turns.)
Figuring out how the character’s thoughts, feelings, observations, and expressions would be different from yours will take some concentration. If you can really get inside the character so those images come naturally as you write, that’s great. But if the character is much different from you, then you may find yourself fiddling endlessly with each sentence rather than proceeding to the next one, as you’re trying to make each thought and line of dialogue appropriate.
If you feel yourself getting into a bog, then write down the first image (or the first emotion, or the first exclamation) that comes to your mind, whether it’s appropriate or not – and go on writing. That’s the beauty of second drafts. Later you can make a sweep through the entire story, looking at everything your character says and does and feels and thinks, making sure you haven’t slipped up by letting your macho truck driver compare love to a fancy tapestry.
How perspective influences conflict
But using perspective correctly has many more implications than just having the character use sports images instead of kitchen ones. Messing up the perspective can do a very destructive number on your conflict.
We as individuals have definite views on certain subjects – and sometimes those views run so deep and have been ingrained for so long that we don’t even realize that they’re not facts, they’re only opinions. We’re convinced ours is the single correct view of the situation. It’s like the woman who, when she was asked about her accent, announced angrily that she didn’t have one – everyone else did.
Our own views are so much a part of us that sometimes we don’t recognize that someone who holds an opposite opinion may have reasons that are every bit as good as ours. Human beings are hard-wired for one point of view – our own. We look at the world through one particular peephole, so it’s hard for us to really get into the head of someone who has an opposing opinion. Even when we’re in a good rousing argument, we’re apt to be thinking about what we’re going to say next or how we’re going to demolish our opponent’s line of reasoning. We’re generally not putting ourselves in that person’s shoes and trying out how it feels.
But if we carry that habit of one-sidedness into our plotting and have only one strong perspective, we weaken our characters’ conflict. If one side of our characters’ disagreement is stronger, then the other side may look silly, or obstructive, or just plain dumb.
Let’s take a fairly common conflict – our heroine is trying to preserve a historic district while the hero is set on destroying the old buildings.
Now look at that last sentence again. We haven’t even got a main character yet or the vague beginnings of a plot, but we’re already showing a prejudice. Can you see it? The heroine is “trying to preserve a historic district,” while the hero is “set on destroying the old buildings.”
And that creates a problem with perspective – because we’ve taken sides with the heroine. Our prejudice may be so subtle and so deeply ingrained that we might not even realize it’s there. But even before we start writing, the conflict is already out of balance.
If we don’t solve the problem right up front, the imbalance will grow as the plot develops – until like a clump of developing rain clouds, it hangs over and threatens the entire story. It may not be obvious exactly what’s happened to the story, but if the conflict is one-sided, the story will probably limp along, going round in circles, just putting in time until “The End” is in view and we can let the side we favor win.
The more deeply-held our beliefs are, the harder it is not to be one-sided. If part of the conflict is that the heroine has a deep belief in God and the hero’s an agnostic, it’s going to be extremely hard to write from both sides with equal conviction. If the author’s a believer, then the heroine’s side is almost certainly going to come off as stronger. As a result, the hero’s convictions may look weak, or short-sighted, or even stupid. At the least, the reader’s going to wonder what took him so long to see the light when the heroine’s so obviously closer to the truth. (The opposite, of course, is an equally real difficulty. If the author’s an agnostic, then the hero is probably going to be admirably restrained and a most sympathetic character, while the heroine is apt to come across as sanctimonious and pulpit-thumping.)
Saving the historic district is a pretty straightforward example, but the problem of balanced perspective creeps into all kinds of conflicts. Let’s say the heroine’s hangup is that she can’t marry the hero because she needs to stay home and care for her poor sick mother. (Anybody want to guess how I stand on that question?) Or her life is in danger from her ex-significant-other, but she doesn’t want the hero to protect her because he was rude to her in high school. (Can we spell “short-sighted”?) Or the child he adopted needs a kidney transplant and she – the genetic mother – is the only one who can donate. (What’s she going to do? Let the kid croak? That would really make her look good.)
If you’re in doubt about whether you’re prejudiced, try reversing the perspectives and see what your reaction is. If suddenly he’s trying to save the historic district and she’s the developer who wants to tear it down, does your view of the situation change?
Practicing perspective helps us sharpen conflict. Only when we can see both sides of the question – and share that insight with the reader – can we present a difference of opinion between our characters which is sensible, logical, believable, and even-handed – and convincing to the reader. Only then have we presented a conflict which will keep her guessing… and reading.
But how do we do that? How do we overcome the very natural temptation to take sides?
The answer lies first in choosing your conflicts carefully. If you feel very strongly on a particular issue, then – no matter how good a conflict it would make between two characters – it may not be one you can handle well.
Secondly, look at your conflict as if you were a debater. In organized debate (as opposed to the presidential variety), participants are given a proposition to research, but they don’t find out until just minutes before the actual debate which side of the argument they have to take. Since they don’t know whether they’ll be arguing pro or con, they have to prepare equally convincing arguments on both sides. Then when the debate’s over, they may take a break for a drink of water and start in again, arguing the opposite side.
Put yourself in each character’s shoes in turn and consider what’s important about this problem to this character, what’s not important, why the character cares, what he wants to do about it, and what would be his ideal happy ending to the problem.
If you discover that you’ve set yourself up with an essentially one-sided conflict, one where you can’t make a solid case for each character, then you can back off and look for ways to even up the sides – before you find yourself deep in a story which is going in circles. Maybe you just need to know more about the issue in order to see the possibilities for legitimate disagreement. Or maybe you need to know more about the character. Why does he feel so strongly? Or maybe you need to shift the character’s positions just a little so that they’re more evenly balanced.
Once you can make the case that your hero’s absolutely and completely right – and then turn around and make an equally convincing argument that your heroine is the one who’s correct – you can write an intense and gripping conflict. And you’ll be a long way toward finding a satisfactory middle ground, a compromise solution that will satisfy everyone (and perhaps surprise the reader as well).
Figure out how each of your characters would view the situation, and give them a solid, understandable, logical perspective – and you’ll be well on the way to creating a much stronger conflict and a far more emotional story.
And you may want to ask yourself: When it clouds up and starts to thunder outside, how will your characters look at the rain?
copyright 2003 Leigh Michaels