Category Archives: POV

Lies – But Only From One Point of View

When is a lie not a lie?

Characters holding different points of view often have different ideas of what constitutes a lie.

Different people will have different, even contrasting, memories of the same event. Some people’s memories will fixate around the particular things they noticed during the event (for example some people will remember sounds; others won’t remember sounds at all). The brain fills in “missing information” to create coherent narrative—if two people saw a bad guy on the roof and then on the ground, one person might say the bad guy climbed down the fire escape and another might say the bad guy jumped. One—or both—of those statements is untrue, but each will seem true to the person saying it.

If your character is an atheist, he will consider the statement “There is a God” to be untrue.

If your character is a practicing Muslim, she will consider the statement “There is a God” to be true.

If your character is a practicing Hindu, he may respond to the statement “There is a God” with “Actually, there are many gods”—ie, the statement is an incomplete truth.

Or think about politics: “The best candidate to run the country is….” Supporters of various political parties will argue passionately about whether the statement is true or false depending on whose name is used to conclude it!

In cases like these three, nobody is telling deliberate falsehoods or trying to deceive anyone. Rather, people’s perspectives are leading them to make judgments of “truth” or “falsehood” based on their own experiences, beliefs, and understandings.

Sometimes the character may be proven wrong. The person who thought he saw and heard the bad guy making his way down the fire escape may be shocked when he sees the security footage of the bad guy jumping from the roof. He may question his own sanity or his eyesight. But he hasn’t deliberately lied. He’s had a (very common) mistaken perception.

And sometimes the characters may never find out whose version is the truth. Maybe the character who believes in the paranormal is sure she saw a ghost and the character who doesn’t believe in life after death is sure she didn’t…and the story ends without anyone ever finding out if the ghost was “real” or not. In this case, the plot of the story—the story arc—is focused on something else, and whether or not the ghost is real doesn’t matter.

Contrasting points of view can create tension and mystery, cause conflicts between characters, and drive the story forward—and they can be done with everyone involved certain they are each telling the truth.

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

Amnesia

Why are books better than their movie counterparts? There are several reasons, but I believe the strongest has to do with insight into the mind. We are given a telepathic link to the point of view character’s mind. But that link streams data in bits instead of a massive info dump (in good writing anyway).

This can be problematic if not done right. We all love a good twist ending. That mental whiplash, once everything seems to be resolved, can be an exhilarating experience. I remember watching the Sixth Sense when the child psychologist discovers he’s dead.

I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. When I did, it was a totally different experience. But the twist wouldn’t have worked if he knew he was dead all along. Consider that for a moment. In twists where the characters know what is going on, but not the reader, a twist comes across more like fraud than hand-clapping thrill.

That’s because there is an unspoken agreement between the reader and writer. The writer promises a good story, an exciting tale, an emotional journey. The reader promises to go along with the ride and believe the words and trust the characters as they are presented. When the reader discovers that the characters were withholding critical information, even though there had been an apparent telepathic link, then that trust is broken and the reader feels deceived, not entertained.

There are many ways to help the reader discover along with the POV characters so that discovery becomes a journey. The one gimmick I’d like to discuss is amnesia.

The Maze Runner did it well, forbidding the reader much of the world where juveniles run mazes. Because of Thomas’s amnesia, the reader is sucked into the story, waiting with baited breath every bit of information they can glean together from the world before them.

I recently read a book where amnesia was used well. Sleeper Protocol by Kevin Ikenberry was a fantastic sci-fi novel where the main character discovers his identity and memories through a series of scientific supported phases under the supposition that rediscovery (integration) can be detrimental to the mind if it happens too quickly.

The sixth sense was essentially an amnesia story, disguised. That’s why it worked so well.

Others, like Dan Brown’s Inferno, use amnesia as a tool to propose a purpose and deciding event for the character in order to up the stakes, or increase the drama and embellish the character arc.

Arguably one of the best amnesia tales is Jason Borne whose head wound left him with no prior memory although he had exceptional skills, spoke foreign languages, knew martial arts and spy craft and so on. Also it allowed the reader to empathize with someone who killed people for a living.

Fifty First Dates used amnesia to tell an incredible, funny, and yet heart-wrenching love story.

I myself have an amnesia novel in the works. It’s temporary and as it wears off, the reader discovers the apocalyptic world, as fascinating as it appears, isn’t at all what it seams and instead turns into an exciting thriller.

To write the piece, I did extensive research on the brain and memory loss. In my world, it has to be, believable. Basically there are different parts of the brain where memory is stored. Episodic memory involving experiences and events are different than Semantic Memory involving facts and concepts. These two types are stored in separate parts of the brain. This is why Jason Borne doesn’t remember any specific event but he knows at this altitude he can flat out run for thirty minutes and not break a sweat.

This is also why is would not make sense for Thomas of Maze Runner to recall his name but nothing else. Unless of course there was some medical, scientific, magical reasoning for it that James Dashner covers well.

What are some of your favorite amnesia stories?

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

From a Certain Point of View

A Guest Post by Karen Pellett

Our view of events in stories, and in real life, is frequently tainted by our past and emotions. Two individuals who have similar stories will react to another person’s actions differently based on their personalities and personal experiences. Thus, giving our history the ability to become metaphorical sunglasses, tinting the truth of what is before us. And, because of this, allows the main character’s “enemy” to fool easier through the power of incomplete truths.

In the sixth Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker returns to Dagobah to finish training, only to find that is mentor, Yoda, is dying. Afterwards Luke has a heart-to-heart with the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Your father… was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and “became” Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.”

That revelation was a prime example of incomplete truth—once the knowledge became apparent to the main character, their perception becomes completely altered as they are forced to re-evaluate their beliefs. Darth Vader was a bad guy, plain and simple. But learning that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, someone’s husband and father, changes Luke’s reality. He was forced to re-evaluate the truth that he thought he knew.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, Harry has a distinctive personal enmity toward the Potion’s Master, Severus Snape. J.K. Rowling gives the reader permission, from the start of the series, to despise Severus Snape. For one, he had the gall to despise Harry’s father (James Potter). Secondly, Snape openly showed hostility toward the chosen one (it didn’t matter that Harry never wanted to be the chosen one). Only at the conclusion of the final book/movie, after Snape is killed by Nagini, does Harry learn that his emotions and past tinted everything he thought was true. Only then is Harry forced to re-evaluate everything he thought was real. Only then does he see the sacrifice and honor of a once hated man, turning Snape into an individual that Harry admired enough to give one of his sons the name Albus Severus Potter.

Other examples of incomplete truths include the M. Night Shyamalan movies The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable where we view the story from the incomplete truth of the main character’s lives. It is only in the end that we are given the lens of truth, revealing the stories from a whole other angle giving the characters, and the viewers, a complete mind-flip moment.

Incomplete truths often tend to be blessed happenstance on the part of the author/creator, but if done well can come across brilliantly. If done poorly, can cost you your reader’s faith & trust. The true brilliance is when an author is skilled enough that they plan out the incomplete truths or omissions from the start. This is why I love the work of Brandon Sanderson. The story Warbreaker is told from the point of view of two Idrian princesses—Vivenna and Siri. At the beginning of the story, the princesses’ planned futures are switched, pulling the proverbial rug out from under the feet. Siri is sent to marry the God King while Vivenna is left feeling lost. Taking matters in hand, Vivenna decides to be the heroine of her own story, and marches off on her own to rescue Siri from the horrible life that Vivenna was meant to live. I thought I knew where the story was headed, and I was enjoying the ride. Then, halfway through, Sanderson flipped everything that Vivenna, Siri, and even the readers, thought they knew on its head; unravelling the twisted and incomplete truths. Only later, if you go back and look, do you realize that Sanderson hints of reality scattered throughout as brilliant nuggets of creativity.

So, next time you find yourself reading or watching a story that mesmerizes you with a mind-flip moment, go back and see if you can determine for yourself—is the use of emotions and history making it easier for one character to fool another through incomplete truths? And if so, was it simply a beautiful happenstance, or was it planned brilliance on the part of the creator?

Karen Pellett:

Karen Pellett is a crazy woman with a computer, and she’s not afraid to use it. Most of her time is spent between raising three overly brilliant and stinkin’ cute children, playing video games with her stepsons, and the rare peaceful moment with her husband. When opportunity provides she escapes to the alternate dimension to write fantasy & magical realism novels, the occasional short story, and essays on raising special needs children. Karen lives, plots & writes in American Fork, Utah.