November 28, 2012
Point of View . . . with Attitude
Writers pay a lot of attention to point of view – so much so, we even have a short form for it (POV). You can find endless discussions on the use of first or third person, limited or omniscient, single POVs or multiples, and so on. But when people, even writers, say something like “It depends on your point of view”, what they mean is perspective – and as the half-full-vs-half-empty crowd can tell you, perspective is everything.
Perspective is all about your attitude, and as such I think it touches on narrative voice more than anything else. NV covers a different set of questions from POV: How old is your narrator? How learned? How would they express themselves? And ultimately, how do they relate to the world? What’s their view of it? Are they Tiggers? Or are they Eeyores?
When I was in university, sitting around in the bar, we used to play a kind of word association game we called “Happy or Unhappy?” or sometimes “Lucky or Unlucky?” (Aside: the constant mention of bars in my remarks isn’t to be taken as evidence that we drink a lot; it’s evidence that we like to hang around in bars). Though many of the people at the table didn’t realize it, this game is similar to the old “Feathers or Lead?” riddle found in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal. You would point at someone and ask the question, which they had to answer immediately, without lengthy thought or consideration. In Zelazny’s story it was a life or death riddle – in our game it was meant to tell you something about yourself.
It might be useful to play this game with your own characters. After all, each of them, whether a POV character or not, needs to have their own attitude, their own perspective, their own view of their relationship with the world, which would come out in how they express themselves. Point at each of your characters and ask them, “Lucky or unlucky?” “Happy or unhappy?”
Make sure all your characters, don’t answer the same way. Because they shouldn’t. And make sure they stay consistent. Because lucky people can have unlucky days, and vice versa. Their attitude will stay the same. Unhappy people can’t be made happy for more than a short period of time, and then it wears off – and don’t we all know someone like that?
I know there are nuances, but I’m focussing here on a character’s fundamental attitude because I think it colours everything else about them. After all, can misanthropes think of themselves as happy? Lucky?
A couple of final remarks about playing the game in real life: for one, people can only answer the question honestly the first time (if at all). After that, they’re ready for it. For another, it’s interesting how many people are genuinely surprised by their own responses – people who said “Happy” when they didn’t consciously think of themselves as happy types, or say “Unlucky” when they gave off an “I’m real lucky” vibe. Sometimes they surprised themselves, and sometimes they surprised their friends. Try it yourself . . . later, when you haven’t been giving it too much thought.