Friday, January 2, 2015

Perspective Errors: Parents' Names

 First-person perspective and third-person limited perspective are probably the two most commonly-used perspectives in fiction. First-person is narrated by a character in their own words, while third-person limited places the audience directly inside the mind of the perspective character. In both cases, the language of the prose and what the narrative focuses on should be filtered through that character, as we’ve discussed before. We’ve also discussed perspective in relation to the name placeholders that you use to refer to characters. Today, we’ll look at a specific name-related perspective problem that writers encounter again and again.

The problem is this: perspective characters often have parents. That’s a good thing—not every protagonist should be an orphan. 
"One would think that Fiction's entire collection of protagonists had been recruited solely from her orphan asylums. Which we know is not the case."
But parents create a rather unique problem when it comes to names and name placeholders. Take a look at this example:

     Teri crouched on the top of the tall brick wall, watching for danger. There was no movement on the grounds below or in the manor ahead, and the narrow street behind her was clear of people in her direction.
     From her left, she heard a soft whistle. “Johanna, Luis,” Alina called to Teri’s parents, “we’re all clear. Come on up.”
     Teri gave a thumbs-up to her parents, and they silently scuttled out of the shadows across the street and up the rough face of the wall. They crouched beside her; Johanna bore a long rope coiled over her shoulder, and Luis carried a bag of thieves’ tools on his back.
     “Good job, you two,” Johanna whispered. “If you see anyone headed our way, signal us in the usual way.”
     “If we’re not back in twenty minutes, head back to the hideout,” Luis added. “We’ll catch up to you there.”
     Teri nodded. “Be careful on the skylight, dad.”
     Luis ruffled her hair with a smile and climbed down into the manor gardens.
     “I love you, my little girl,” Johanna whispered, giving Teri a quick hug.
     “I love you too, mom,” Teri whispered back as Johanna followed after Luis.

Do you see the problem? This passage is written in third-person limited perspective, and we’re inside Teri’s head. Now, Teri calls her parents “mom” and “dad” when she speaks. It is therefore logical to assume that she thinks of them that way, too—most children do. Most people do, for that matter. No matter how old we get, most of us think of our parents as “mom” and “dad.”  But in the passage above, Teri’s parents are referred to by name in the prose, even though we’re in Teri’s head.

Now, this is a very common difficulty, especially if your protagonist’s parents are prominent characters in the story. It can be very awkward and clunky to refer to them as “so-and-so’s mother” over and over again in the prose. For example:

     Teri handed her mother the bag. Her mother began to dig through it, frowning. “I want the two of you to stay here until I get back,” she said.
     Teri and Alina glanced at one another. “But you’ll need spotters,” Alina said. “It’s too dangerous for you to go alone.”
     Teri’s mother shook her head. “No. The two of you aren’t ready for this kind of job. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
     Teri placed her hand over her mother’s where she was holding the bag open. “Mom, please. Let us help.”
     Her mother sighed and hung her head for a moment. “Not this time, little girl,” she said. When she looked up, Teri was shocked to see that there were tears in her eyes. She’d never seen her mother cry.

That gets a little awkward, doesn’t it? Besides “her mother” being a bit of a long name placeholder, we're forced to repeat it more than we would her name (to avoid confusion between all of the instances of she and her that get thrown around with three female characters in the scene). We’re also forced to repeat Teri’s name a little more than looks good (otherwise, we’d create situations where the her in her mother would seem to be referring to Alina and not Teri—hence we say “Teri’s mother” in the third paragraph instead of “her mother.).

This problem is kind of a Catch-22. There tend to be problems whichever way you go.

Referring to the parents as “her mother” and “her father” thoughout the prose will be more true to life. But the larger the parents’ parts are, the more difficult this will make the writing.

Choosing to refer to the perspective’s characters by their names in the prose is an acceptable option, even if it is technically a small perspective error. Plenty of authors have done this in the past—for instance, if you read the first chapter of The Eye of the World (the first book of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series), you will see that Robert Jordan chose this method of dealing with the problem. Even though the perspective is third-person limited from Rand’s viewpoint, Rand’s father is referred to by name (Tam) in the prose. Most people don’t even notice anything unusual about it—and those who do notice the perspective error will quickly get used to it.

The problem with this approach is that it can create a subtle, unconscious distance between the perspective character and their parent. In the case of Rand and Tam, for instance (minor spoilers ahead), I was completely unsurprised when it was revealed that Tam was not Rand’s biological father. Rand was completely shocked by the revelation, but for years I could not figure out why it didn’t surprise me. Eventually, I pinpointed this as the reason—it is not uncommon for children or grown adults to refer to their adopted parents or step-parents by name, for a variety of reasons. The fact that the prose referred to Rand’s father by his first name even though we were in Rand’s head caused me to unconsciously label their relationship as an adoptive one rather than a biological one.

(This is in no way meant to disparage the relationships between children and their adoptive parents, of course. It is simply an observation of common patterns of speech and the situations in which they tend to appear.)

Now, is that a minor problem? Yes, probably. However, it is a problem that you ought to consider when approaching the problem of how to refer to your perspective character’s parents in the prose. 

Next time, we’ll discuss a few tips and possible alternate solutions to this problem.

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