Saturday, 6 April 2013

Matters Of Perspective

As the lovely Jack Gleeson (otherwise known as the antithesis of lovely that is Joffrey Lannister sorry, Baratheon from the epic TV series Game of Thrones) has demonstrated, the reader's perception of a character - and a character's perception of themselves, is based on perspective.

The sense of a character's perspective is immediately obvious to the reader upon opening the book. Often, this first encoutner will take place, as in the demonstration above, through something menial; talking to their friends, going to work, or waking up in the morning (although this can lead to confused interpretations between pessimists and those who cannot function until caffienated).

These "first encounter" moments are pretty vital: they set up your character's personality as it seems to others. For example, Bob, who has recently been awarded a promotion at work, and is looking forward to cooking dinner for his friends at the Historical Re-Enactment club, is going to have a much happier outlook on going to work than his friend Jerry, whose most recent attempt at cooking a souffle cost him most of his savings, his expensive wallpaper, and most of his hair.

However, even if it's in these first, small-scale encounters with the character, the reader probably won't be all that affected by their viewpoint until we get to the fun part: the bit where they have a problem, and they need to solve it OR ELSE {insert hyperbolic horror here}.

These testing moments are, quite likely, the ones where the reader will make their decisions about whether or not to like and support the character, and their perspective and subsequent actions will have a lot to do with that. After all, it's all very well that Bob can maintain a nice cheery outlook when his cat chews up his favourite pair of slippers, but if he takes one look at the advancing army of scientifically-enhanced warrior paperclips that are invading his hometown and immediately vaults off the nearest pier, we're not going to be very impressed with him; he set himself up as a practical, fairly brave sort, but has since undermined that, and his clothes will dry out long before the reader regains any of their trust in him.

That said, I think it's also important to keep a character's viewpoint consistent. Their development arc, of course, will result in changes - the magnitude of which will vary, usually, depending on how many times you've tried to kill, maim or otherwise ruin their lives - but the fact remains that most humans, once they've found their niche viewpoint, aren't all that willing to change it.

That's where the testing moments come in. If, having watched their family, friends, and postman viciously impaled upon the weapons of the paperclip army, the character does not come to some change of strategy, then the writer has wasted a wonderful opportunity for plot advancement. Conversely, unless the character had not first been of that wonderfully cowardly persuasion (in this case, particularly in the face of office stationary), the metamorphic transformation from Normal Old Bob The Narrator to Awesome Hero Bob Who Slays Paperclips With His Mother's Rolling Pin loses out on the better part of its impact.

Of course, viewpoint will be important for other parts of the story as well - the tone of the book, the humour (if any), the focus of the characters' attention in different situations, and whether, when confronted with a particularly irritating salesperson, they will entertain thoughts of bludgeoning them with the nearest blunt object until it stops being entertaining.

Perspective: like a pair of glasses, but the lenses aren't made of glass, but rather the thoughts, emotions, and judgements of the character. But you might have more trouble cleaning them on the sleeve of your coat.

~ Charley R


  1. Very good post. The first impression a character makes-- the reader's first perspective of her-- always tells the most about whether or not readers will care. If your main character is a spineless sea sponge (metaphorically speaking), the readers won't like her much, even if she turns brave somewhere around the end of the book. But if the perspective shows good qualities slightly tarnished by changeable ones... that's a good main character.

    But side characters can be as flawed as you want. They're the flexible ones.

    1. That they are - which is possibly why they always end up as everyone's favourites. Because they can be impressed with their development, while not being so put off by their assbutt-ish starting point, because they don't have to CONSTANTLY DEAL WITH THEM like you do with protagonists.