Monday, October 27, 2014

Perspective Errors: Matching Description and Viewpoint

One of the most important aspects of writing is getting out of your own head and into the heads of your perspective characters. Some characters might be quite a lot like you, but many of them will view the world much differently—and it’s important that you keep your perspective (or the perspective of other characters) from bleeding into the heads of your protagonists, especially when you’re describing the world around them.

In this post, we discussed one way that such perspective bleed can happen—when an author is an expert on a certain topic, it can pop up in their writing even when it shouldn’t. For instance, I’m pretty well-trained in English grammar and editing. If I were writing from the point of view of a well-educated librarian, I might have her note that the text on a sign misused a present-continuous participle and left a modifier dangling. However, if I were writing from the perspective of a largely-illiterate street thug walking past the same sign, describing the sentence using those detailed terms would be completely out of place.

This problem—describing things in ways your perspective character wouldn’t—is probably most common when a perspective character is of a different nationality, race, or gender from the author. For instance, here is the single most common and jarring example that I have come across (and I have come across versions of it many, many times):

     Diana frowned at Detective Mullens. “My husband didn’t keep secrets from me, detective. If he had been involved in something illegal, he would have told me.”
     Detective Mullens raised his hands in a placating manner. “I’m not trying to cast aspersions on your husband, ma’am. I just have to follow every lead and possibility I come across. Do you recognize these ledgers?”
     The detective handed her a three-ring binder. She did recognize it—it held their family finances. It usually sat on a shelf in her and her husband’s bedroom. She hadn’t even realized it was missing. “Where did you find this?” she asked.
     Before the detective could answer, the front door opened and Diana’s twenty-three year old daughter Stefanie walked in. She’d clearly been jogging—her bronze skin was glistening with sweat, her body firm and lean but still curvy. Her dark hair was pulled up in a simple ponytail, though a few strands had fallen loose to dangle in front of her vivid brown eyes and her full, red lips. Her ample breasts were outlined clearly through the tight sports bra she wore, moving up and down as her heavy breathing slowed to normal. She bent down almost sensuously to brush some dirt from her tight red leggings, and Diana frowned when she noticed that Detective Mullens was watching appreciatively.
     Diana cleared her throat, and Stefanie looked up in surprise. “Oh, hi,” she said. “I didn’t see you there. What’s going on?”

Now, I sincerely hope that you all can see the problem in this passage. We’re in Diana’s head—that’s clear from the fact that we’ve been given her thoughts and no one else’s. Therefore, everything we see should come through the filter of Diana’s mind. Everything should be described as she would describe it—and if that is how she would describe her own daughter, there’s something seriously wrong with this family.

These particular scenes usually happen for one of two reasons. First, the (probably male) author is describing the daughter as he, the author, pictures her without any regard to viewpoint. This is poor writing—if your viewpoint doesn’t allow you to describe something in the way you’d like, either change your viewpoint to one compatible with your description or change your description to one compatible with the viewpoint.

The second possibility is that the author wants to convey how Detective Mullens sees Stefanie, because he’s the actual protagonist and we’ve only temporarily leapt to Diana’s perspective. If that’s the case, then why are we in Diana’s perspective? Very few stories are well served by multiple viewpoints—you might as well keep the point of view with Detective Mullens.

(By the way, this particular problem—sexualizing a character while in the viewpoint of a character who wouldn’t sexualize them—is much more common from male authors than female writers. But female writers are definitely not immune to this error, so be on guard!)

These two people should not describe things in the same way. Don't describe what he sees in a way she would describe it, or vice versa.

Always remember that description should match the perspective of the character—don’t let your personal viewpoint or the view of a non-viewpoint character influence description, unless you want to make some unfortunate implications about the perspective character!

For more on this topic, check out this post.

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