Perspective is Everything

Perspective is one of those things that can make or break a paragraph, chapter, or even an entire book if done poorly enough. Readers may not know how to articulate why they dislike a particular passage when perspective is wrong, but they will know immediately when it is wrong.

I think of it like this: As the Author, I have the documentary view of events, people, places, and things in my head (and hopefully squirreled away in multiple notebooks and other locations). I know everything about what happens, when it happens, and who did it. I’m the guy who has figured out what all the cards are inside the envelope in a game of Clue. Readers are the other players who have an incomplete chart of who did what when and with what weapon. As the author, it is my solemn duty to never, ever, reveal the documentary view to anyone.

The reader only having a limited view of what is really going on is crucial to good storytelling!

I’ve met a lot of people who think perspective is just “the point of view of the narrator” and that’s sort of it. But that’s like saying that a Bugati Veyron is “a car”. It does not do the concept justice in either case.

Ever bitten into a piece of meat and thought, “Hey, there’s something off here but I don’t know what it is.” When a reader dives into a chapter with a perspective problem, they get the same feeling. They know something’s off but don’t know why. Chances are they’ve just been given too much information via the narrator – the author has revealed bits of the documentary view and ruined the perspective.

Every human being views the world through a set of filters. These filters are built up over time through our experiences, our emotions, and our memories. These filters make it so that if one of us sees a guy clutching a bag running down the street, we think he’s stolen something and is evading the cops while someone else assumes he’s trying not to miss his bus. One person might see a friendly happy clown and the entire experience would be narrated positively but someone else, traumatized as a child at a circus, might have a narrative of tortured, inner turmoil.

In any given scene, the narrator sits inside one brain and one brain only (with few well-done exceptions). From his perch within that one subject’s brain, that narrator must tell the story through the filters of that person, including their views, their prejudices, their assumptions, and their entire lifetime of experiences. Anything else comes off as rigid, boring, lifeless narration rather than good storytelling.

I recently read the first book in the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks and was struck by the sheer mastery of perspective in that book. Each character had all kinds of emotional and physical baggage and tons of experiences and those experiences clearly govern the character’s actions, motivations, and the perspective of the narration. This book is a clear example of how good use of perspective made a good book great.

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