Tag 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.

Writing Who You’re Not

Two aliens walked into a bar. “Greetings, Earthling,” they said to the bartender. “Take us to your leader!”

That was the point where Dar’xyl threw the book across the room. “Human authors can’t write us worth scrap!”
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While I was studying for my Master’s degree in English, I sat through several classroom arguments to the effect of, “This (male) author can’t write realistic female characters; this (female) author fetishizes gay men when she writes; this (Black) author shouldn’t write a book about Native Americans; no, wait, it’s okay when this Black author writes about Native Americans, but not when these White authors do.” I left these classes wondering if I dared ever write about anyone who came from a culture, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation or any background and experience different from my own.

If I only wrote characters rooted in my own personal experience, all the people in my stories would be female, white, under 40, Canadian, and of German, English or Jewish heritage. There would be no Asian people, no transgender people, no Muslim people, no elderly people, and no men. The setting would always be late-twentieth or early-twenty-first century, Planet Earth.

I wouldn’t want to write in this world. It’s got no relation to the world around me—it doesn’t feel real—and I’ve yet to think of a compelling and logical reason why it would be peopled only with characters whose experiences parallel my own. In order to write a realistic, compelling world, you’ll probably have to create at least a few characters whose experiences are rooted in backgrounds you don’t share (unless you’re writing about, for example, an isolated village in China where everyone is probably Chinese; or a colony where a plague has killed all the men; or another scenario where minimal diversity is a critical component of the setting).

On the other hand, it’s one thing to make your character a different faith, gender, age or ethnicity, but another thing to write such a person realistically. Oftentimes authors, sometimes unconsciously, fall into stereotypes when they try to write from a different point of view. Take some time to do some research and understand what experiences, attitudes, and cultural values might shape such a person’s thinking and worldview. Choose carefully what story you want to tell – is it a story best told by someone with personal experience? For example, I’m comfortable writing a story with a gay male lead, but I’m not comfortable writing a story about what it’s like to be a gay man in modern Canada.

Also understand that just because two characters come from the same religion/ethnic background/culture/etc., doesn’t mean their worldviews are going to be the same. Losing an arm, for example, will be a different experience for the rich person who buys a cutting-edge prosthetic limb than it will be for the poor thief who now has to make a living with just one hand. Being Black is going to be a different experience for the Black kid who’s the only Black person in her entire high school than it is for the Black kid who grows up surrounded by a community – and that community’s experience will differ depending on if it’s in 1990s Nova Scotia or 1960s Alabama. Being Christian can run the gamut from Mother Teresa to the Westboro Baptist Church, and so on.

The best weapon in the writer’s arsenal is the ability to imagine and empathize with another’s point of view. This was a challenge to me in a recent short story in which the main character is a religious leader, but his own belief is best described as agnostic. I was tired of – yes, a stereotype, in which every character who is a religious leader is always either highly devout, or else utterly corrupt. I wanted to create a character who wrestles with his faith, who tries to fulfill the duties of his job despite deep personal misgivings.

I’ve always been a strongly religious person, so I had to imagine: what experiences made this person an atheist in his youth? What experiences made him suspect that there might be a God after all? Why did he choose his current faith over all the others? Why is he still unsure that his God is real? Writing this character helped me imagine an experience different from any I’ve ever had myself.

This is one of the great powers of fiction: the ability to make the reader understand, empathize, and see the world through different eyes—to experience what it’s like to be someone else. Sometimes that “someone else” is a person of a different gender, ethnicity, faith, age…the list goes on. This power challenges the writer to provide a view that doesn’t simply reinforce cultural stereotypes. And even though the story might be fiction, the understanding of how that point of view feels from inside, can linger long after the story is over.

*If you’re curious – you can meet Shaman Pasharan, Sigil of the Silver Future, in the upcoming EDGE anthology Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, in a story entitled “Burnt Offerings.”

The Right Voice for a Dick

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 * * *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.

barchart

 

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