Lens, perception and point-of-view
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As regular Fetish Literature readers will know, building compelling and engaging characters is one the hallmark traits of great writers. We’ve previously tackled the subject with articles on character transformation, motivations and ideologies. And in this piece, we’re going to explore point-of-view: how a character’s interactions with their external environment can help to develop a unique profile, build plot intrigue, and much more.
There are different ways we can think about point-of-view in fiction. Speaking narratively, point-of-view can refer to who is telling the story and when, i.e. whether it’s first, second or third person, and told in the past, present or future tense.
But it can also refer to how characters see, interact and engage with the world around them. We might equally think of this as the character’s perception – or their lens.
As human beings, each of us has our own lens through which we see the world. It is an infinitely complex series of perceptions based on our experiences, influences, memories and much more. It’s unique to us. No two people have the exact same view of the world as one another. Which means we all react to situations differently.
Let’s consider an example.
Imagine you’re in a supermarket and the song ‘Hey Jude’ by The Beatles starts to play over the speakers. There will be some of you who’ll think, Great, I love that song! What a fantastic soundtrack to do my shopping to. There’ll be others among you who’ll think, Oh dear, I hate this song, my parents played it so much when I was a kid and I’m sick of it. Some of you won’t have much of an opinion of the song. You might not even recognise it, but you’ll welcome some background music. While others will see any music being played as an unwelcome distraction!
What I’m getting at is that one simple event such as a song playing in a supermarket can evoke thousands of different reactions. And if we consider that our day-to-day lives are filled with different events, it creates the possibility for an infinitely rich tapestry of reaction in each and every one of us.
Great fiction uses this idea of point-of-view to breathe life into characters, to make them believable and compelling, memorable and engaging.
Why is point-of-view important in fiction?
We can agree that by endowing fictional characters with a unique lens through which they see the world, writers can make them engaging and compelling. However, there’s more to character point-of-view than that.
You’ll have noticed in the above ‘Hey Jude’ example that depending on the person’s reaction to the event, we can begin to build a picture of what that person’s character might be like, i.e. whether they do or don’t like music, how they feel about shopping at the supermarket, even their age and what type of music their parents listened to when they were growing up.
The best writers will use this to great effect, placing characters in a series of situations and telling the reader how the characters react. Before long, the writer can build a three-dimensional and realistic profile of a character, without breaking the sacred Show, Don’t Tell rule.
Let’s look at some more examples.
Frank walks past a florist’s where a large collection of sunflowers is on display, and he’s overcome with a sudden pang of sadness.
In this passage, we learn that sunflowers bring out a feeling of sadness in Frank. But given this passage in isolation, we don’t know why.
Aida opened the bedroom curtains and let out a long, tortured groan. Her garden had been transformed – the grass had disappeared and been replaced by a thick layer of crisp, white snow.
Here, we see how Aida reacts to a snow day. Not good! In fact, she doesn’t even sigh or shake her head. She lets out a ‘long, tortured groan.’ Clearly, Aida isn’t a fan of snow!
There are a few general points we can glean from these two examples. For a start, both Aida’s and Frank’s reactions are not what we might expect. For many of us, sunflowers and unexpected snow days will evoke a pleasant reaction, or at least a more neutral response. But these characters have strong negative feelings associated with them. It’s unusual, and as such grabs a reader’s attention. Not all a character’s reactions to their surroundings need to be strange or surprising. That would risk rendering the character unrealistic. However, by punctuating quirky qualities, a writer endears a reader to the characters and makes the whole story more engaging.
Furthermore, there’s the intrigue. As mentioned above, a person’s point-of-view is developed through past experiences. And the same goes for characters. Quirky and unexpected reactions to situations should have a story behind them and can make for engaging character development. For instance, why does the sight of sunflowers make Frank feel sad? We can infer that they remind him of a painful, difficult experience he’s had that he’s still bruised by. If told well, Frank’s story will expand on this, leading the reader to discover more about Frank as a character and the circumstances that led him to associate sunflowers with sadness.
And then we can talk about an old favourite of ours: character arcs. As we know from previous Fetish Literature articles, a character’s evolution is a powerful story device that often leaves a strong mark on the reader. Shifts in a character’s point-of-view are a great way to show that a character has fundamentally changed. Imagine, for instance, that we learn that Aida hates snow days because she was involved in a skiing accident as a child. This could be key to the main plot, and may be something that is resolved by the end of the story. What better way to show this resolution, and therefore Aida’s change, by having her let out a yelp of joy at waking up to a garden full of snow, rather than a groan? Her perception of snow would have shifted entirely, from a negative to a positive one. A neat way to demonstrate the character’s journey and how they’ve evolved as the story has gone on.
Best case examples of point-of-view in action
Ok, enough of my goofy examples. Let’s see how the real masters use character point-of-view in their stories.
As we’re going to see, when done very well, point-of-view can do much more than tell us simply how a character feels about a particular situation, like sunflowers or snow. It can provide the reader with clues about the character’s deeper feelings and attitudes; it can go a long way toward painting a vivid picture as to who the character is.
Let’s first consider Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Cathedral’. (You can read the story as well as the Fetish Literature analysis by clicking here.)
The story is told in first-person, through the eyes of a mean-spirited and prejudiced unnamed narrator. His strong voice and point-of-view are part of what makes the story so memorable. And they come straight to the fore, in the opening paragraph.
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
How do we feel about the narrator having read this? I don’t know about you, but he seems like a very unpleasant person and not someone I’d want to spend any time with. But why do I respond to the passage in this way? The narrator doesn’t tell me that he’s unpleasant. There are no actions I could point to as evidence to his character. Rather, it’s his descriptions of people and events – his perceptions – that leave me with this impression.
I’d argue that for anyone reasonable, a visit from your wife’s friend would be at worst an inconvenience, and the fact that the friend is blind shouldn’t be an issue. The narrator has ignorant, preconceived notions about his wife’s friend just because he’s visually impaired and from what he’s seen ‘from the movies’.
Let’s move on to another example: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin. (Likewise, you can read the story as well as the analysis by clicking here.)
The story of Sonny’s release from prison is told in first-person through the eyes of his brother, another unnamed narrator. The two brothers are laid out in stark contrast to one another. We know Sonny is a free-spirited thinker, with a chequered past, soaked in New York’s jazz culture. How do we know this? Because of his actions and background – he’s a jazz musician who’s just been released from prison where he was incarcerated for possession and selling of heroin.
We build up a profile of the narrator’s character, on the other hand, largely not from his actions, but rather how he interacts with the world around him: his point-of-view.
When the narrator bumps into one of his brother Sonny’s old friends, his reaction is one of disgust:
I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child.
And later in the story, when he remembers Sonny’s desire to go to India, his reaction is downbeat and discouraging:
He read books about people sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather, but mostly bad, naturally, and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom. I used to say that it sounded to me as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could.
Clearly, this is a character who is not aligned with Sonny’s free-spirited way of thinking. Instead of being open to new possibilities and mindsets, he’s closed off and dismissive. This is what causes a long-standing rift with his brother, and it’s also what brings us to a brilliant conclusion in the story, where the narrator’s eyes are opened to the power of the music that has been an inspiration in his brother’s life. His perception has changed dramatically, from being someone who’s closed off to Sonny’s way of life, to being massively moved by it. We see this in how he reacts to watching his younger brother in concert:
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
In both Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ and James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’, we’re shown who the narrators are as characters by how they interact with the world around them. Both of them have unique points-of-view that the writer demonstrates clearly through their perceptions, whether it’s an unfounded prejudice against blind people or ignorance about spiritualism in India.
But what is it that’s made the characters have these perceptions? As we discussed earlier in the article, people’s points-of-view are created from prior experiences, memories and influences. By giving their characters unique and intriguing perceptions, Carver and Baldwin make us want to read on to find out how they came to develop those perceptions in the first place.
And finally, we come to character transformation. As with many great stories, the narrators in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Sonny’s Blues’ go through a significant change. They’re noticeably different at the end of the story compared to how they appear at the beginning. In ‘Cathedral’, the mean-spirited, misanthropic narrator descends into a state of child-like wonder as, guided by his wife’s friend, he draws a cathedral. And in ‘Sonny’s Blues’, the story ends with the narrator emotionally moved by his brother’s music – an activity which previously symbolised what he believed was wrong with his brother’s life choices. Again, these transformations are not told to the reader; instead, they’re shown through how the characters react to events occurring around them. Their perceptions have been altered, temporarily at least, highlighting the power of the story’s prior events leading up to the finale.
Try it at home
Consider characters’ points-of-view next time you pick up whichever book you’re currently reading. How does the writer reveal information about the characters? Is it through exposition? Through their actions? Do you learn more about them through how they interact with external objects, scenarios or people? What do you think this adds to the story as a whole?
Go a step further
Our most recent Fetish Literature deep-dive article looked at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s timeless psychological horror ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. The story focuses on the narrator’s descent into madness, as she fixates on the yellow wallpaper in her room. This is a great example of how a character’s interactions with an external object can be used as a literary device to show their inner feelings. You can read the story, as well as the analysis, by clicking here.