Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

About Perspective


Today, I sat in a Heidelberg cafe, sipped a chai latte and then a cup of vanilla rooibos, wrote, had vague thoughts about perspective and watched the world go by. I wrote notes in the very notebook where the novel I am now writing was born. As I read my initial notes, I was amazed by how much has changed in the story since then, and then I felt slightly embarrassed. I thought that was a good story? My perspective has changed! And if you don’t mind, I want to share those vague thoughts on perspective and I welcome any comments to edify and improve on them.

So I’m writing a novel and the story is seen through the eyes of three, maybe four, characters. So far, so contemporary. Then, I was at bookclub this week and one discussion that arose was this trait of contemporary writers to advance their stories through the perspective of multiple characters. There seems to be a big trend towards telling one story through many prisms: either allowing each character to advance the story, or retelling the story in different ways through each character’s experiences of it. The reader is simultaneously led through a narrative and must piece it together themselves.

I can think offhand of a whole lot of books I’ve read recently that do this: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, The Island by Andrea Levy and Half of a Yellow Sun to name but a few. These books are by no means the same, but they achieve a similar effect of a story being advanced or the reader’s understanding enhanced through various differing and fragmented perspectives.

What I want to know is how do you like this technique? If you read much contemporary fiction, are you tired of it? Are there ways of doing it well? Do you sometimes wish for one constant narrator to ease you through the story? Or do you find that odd and old-fashioned?

I do sometimes find that I’m so sucked in by a character’s voice, so convinced of their world, that it comes as a horrible shock when I’m suddenly plucked out of it and plunked elsewhere. I find I’m mourning the passing of the one before and I don’t give the new character a chance. Having recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, I can say that Chimimanda Adichie achieves the shift from one to another with an amazing delicacy, so that I never felt the shock of the change. It also depends if the writer uses first or third person to voice the characters, because as a reader, I find it’s possible to attain more distance from a character written in the third person. A character written in first person demands that the reader identifies more closely.

It’s seventeen years since I studied literary theory and my memory of what defines post-modernism is rusty. I think that post-modernism tries to reflect that we no longer can presume to have one concrete worldview. It acknowledges that that is shattered, that we live in a world of multiple perspectives, and no-one can lay claim to the big picture. Take 9/11 for example: everyone, from an Al-Qaeda supporter in Afghanistan, to an ordinary Moslem in Iraq, to a German, to someone in Minnesota, to a person living in New York, would have a different experience of that day. A novelist writing about 9/11 could choose to represent one person’s experience of it, or a multiplicity of views.

I keep thinking about Dickens, the ultimate storyteller. Did he worry about perspective? Or did he not just find a great story and roll with it? Within that story, he would explicate everyone’s motivation and their role in moving the story forward, but he didn’t need to crawl into their heads and feel things in their voice. I wonder what Dickens would do with my story. Would he bother with multiple perspectives, or would he find the most interesting character and take it from there?

As I sat there in the Heidelberg cafe, I thought Dickens would, like most of you, just tell me to get on with it. Bearing that putative advice in mind, I went to visit my character Lindiwe and wrote four pages from her perspective. And it was good.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

22 thoughts on “About Perspective

  1. The more I think about this the less I know.. so am very open to persuasion. As a reader, I find it has the potential to be irritating, because you have just got comfy with one teller, and it’s musical chairs all of a sudden. It does indeed add perspective, but at what cost? Is it not possible to have that perspective without the first person telling it..? Is it maybe a cheap trick to help build characters that would otherwise be less believable? (NOT in your case of course, I mean generally) Thus, I would maybe as a writer of a future classic be wary of fashions in writing, if you want to box with the best, then measure yourself against the best (as you are already doing with Dickens). I am sorry to have put the cat amongst the pidgeons.

  2. I love the shifts in perspective. Some of my favorite novels ever achieve their effects through these shifts — the Moonstone, for example. In fact, the books that come to mind that do this perspective-shifting tend to be older ones, although it may have become more popular more recently. I just finished James Hogg’s novel from early 19C and it has a disorienting perspective-shift that works wonderfully. It’s very postmodern, in fact 🙂 I love the way having multiple narrators and perspectives creates depth and complexity.

  3. I found your blog today while doing a search on Technorati. I, too, am an aspiring novelist.

    To get to the point of your post, I prefer novels from multiple viewpoints. I think that’s one of the reason I tend to not like first person narratives. It’s much more difficult to know those other characters. One way some novelists seem to be getting around this is writing in first person, however, using different characters in alternative chapters. For example: Chapter one might be in the POV of the protagonist, the second in the love interest’s , the third in the antagonist’s, then back to the protagonist with chapter four. That sort of thing. I read a couple of novels last year that did this and I found it quite interesting.

  4. I love chai latte! And I happen to be drinking a cup of rooibos right now.

    Aside from that, I’ve never had any problem with multiple viewpoints and I wouldn’t necessarily see them as a product of post-modernism – an awareness of the situated nature of the individual (or the multiple selves of the individual) has long been a stock-in-trade of great writers (think War and Peace, The Brothers Kamarazov, the Human Comedy of Balzac if you consider it as a single work. Or Laurence Sterne?

    In terms of current books, the absence of the authorial voice kind of renders even books with a single narrative voice one fragment amongst many.

    Anyway, I love shifts in perspective but I also love great stories. This has nothing to do with your post per se but I just read Isak Dinesen’s short story ‘Babette’s Feast’ and was actually quite teary by the end of it. I have a suspicion she just got on with it. Some stories are by their nature fragments.

  5. Hmm. Sometimes the omniscient narrator gets a bit annoying too. I’m feeling a little bit of that with van der Post right now: how could he possibly know the inner thoughts and moods of people of different genders, ages, and cultures? (Answer: he was a very thoughtful and observant man, and, as fiction, he was MAKING IT UP!)

    I think perspective shifts are all right if done in large chunks, but I think rapid shifts are probably too disorienting for me. I guess I’m not po-mo enough. : )

  6. You know, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever considered it! Certainly I’ve read novels told from different perspectives, and novels with one narrator, and so long as both are done well I am content…I don’t prefer one or the other. Whatever works in telling your story, works. And, for balance, since you are writing a novel from alternating perspectives, you should know mine is told from just one narrator, and the first-person at that.
    Look at all of us novel writers, hanging out…

  7. I have found myself becoming exasperated lately with this modern trend of multiple narrators and am so glad to see the questions being raised here. Yanked around is how I so often feel, and when I think of some novels that have stayed with me long after finishing, they do seem to have in common one intriguing narrator. Lolita comes to mind, which leads me down another path: What if the sole narrator is unreliable? Then what? (I usually love that!)

  8. Hey, Heidelberg!. You are so relatively close to me right now.
    Any chance of you sharing some of the writing?

  9. I remember the very first novel that I read that had 4 different voices and they would shift from chapter to chapter. I found it confusing at the time because the shifts happened too quickly and too often.

    Since then however, I’ve come to really enjoy the different perspectives. A Spot of Bother by Haddon is among my favorite novels. I find that I’ve been applying that more and more to my own life. Trying to look at things from everyone’s perspective. It certainly brings a more complex understanding of issues and feelings. It would be like painting in a rainbow of colors as opposed to black & white. Neither is wrong or right, it’s just a matter of preference.

    I bet that didn’t help you at all! Sorry.

  10. If Lindiwe is a strong character (which she seems to be) and it is a character driven work I vote stay with her. Novels like the Moonstone need those varying perspectives to gather and present their evidence. And even then those shifts are a little frustrating; you as reader are having to move from one armchair to another too many times within a book and you start to lose sympathy for it.

  11. Good stuff. I think multiple perspectives is not over done. It depemds on the story. Sometimes the story benefits from multiple perspective but sometimes the single perspective is necessary for the suspense (take Saturday for example). …. Bindi takes a sip of rooibos… I tend to agree with your take on postmodernism. postmodernism to me means the rejection of an hegemonic world view, it acknowledges that there is no ‘truth’ as such, only perspective; words have no meaning other than in context and even then the meaning is transient, slippery, open to multiple readings and retellings…

  12. Wouldn’t it depend on how meaty those characters are in your imagination? Do the other three characters of the story hold as much fascination and mystery to you as Lindiwe presently does? Writing a story with multiple characters means digging deeply into the created conflict of the characters. Characters in juxtapositions, which might make it difficult for you to slip completely into the skin of all the characters. You might not like all your characters equally.

  13. One or multiple characteres are equally good, depending on the story. My conclusion: if it gets you writing 4 pages, keep listening to your inner Dickens!

  14. I know it’s an old technique but i’m a real sucker for the perspective that recounts the same events but from different points of view. LIke Carol Shield’s Happenstance, where half the book recounts the husband’s experience and the other half the wife’s. But essentially, just follow your instincts, Charlotte. Somerset Maugham said that he used to get up in his bathrobe in the morning and write until it started to become clear to him that he had gone wrong. Then he jacked it in for the day. I really associate with that method!

  15. Many perspectives on perspective! Thank you for your ideas and opinions. Right now, I have three characters who have wormed their way into my heart. I’ve written as two of them already and that has gone well. I will give the third a go shortly. I think the best way is to keep it instinctive, as Litlove suggest. This is only a first draft after all: much can change in the rewriting.

  16. Love your post, Charlotte. My take is that the shifts work when it is integral to the storytelling (as opposed to just being a cool technique) and that the multiple PsOV are equally compelling. I can’t think of a good example off the cuff, but there were novels (and I think you allude to this) where one voice or character was much more compelling than the others. The other danger is that the voices are too similar, and thus not very distinctive in the readers’ mind.

    But, I agree with Litlove — just keep plowing through your first draft.


  17. For what its worth – which is not much! – I think you’re thinking too much at this stage. You’ve got your three protagonists, just get on with telling the tale now. You can (and will) go back many times and can tweak things then.
    Geduld en moed, alles sal reg kom!

  18. Pingback: James Hogg, part 1 « Of Books and Bicycles

  19. I think you should write in the voices and from the perspectives that interest you and keep you amused and moving forward. You will be in this story for a very long time, much longer than your readers, and I firmly believe that if you please yourself, you will naturally please others.

    In my last novel, I wrote about events mainly from one character’s point of view, but every once in a while I showed events from other perspectives. I did that when I felt that the other perspective would feel interesting and helpful and a little sneaky, almost, because you’d gone on for so long looking at things from one point of view, and then to switch, so you see the character as someone else might see them adds a little jolt of interest. I didn’t do this a lot, and was guided mostly by when it felt like the right thing to do. That said, I am also a fan of the single perspective, a narrative I find predictable and comforting, which are not bad things at all.

  20. Very interested in your comments about driving narrative through perspective of different characters – I find it tough as well. Please can I send your words to members of book club (with credit) as think they’ll be v interested by it and am sure will provoke lively discussion. Also would like to add you to blogroll. OK with you?

  21. Interesting post. I must say that I have always been a fan of reading 1st person narratives – they seem to draw me in like nothing else can. But I do like the telling of a story from multiple perspectives a la Half a Yellow Sun (wasn’t it wonderful??) and Digging to America. I don’t think multiple 1st person narratives woul work for me – too unsettling. I have often debated whether my much-pondered-but-yet-to-write-a-single-word novel would be in the 1st person or not – but probably time to stop faffing about with details and WRITE!! I am the queen of procrastination.

  22. It seems a very 19th century device to me. I rounded off the year with Wuthering Heights, and started this year with The Woman in White, and both have multiple narrators. I think the first one had multiple narrators because Emily couldn’t get her head around a third person narrative; she pushed the first person narrative way beyond the limits of plausibility, but the whole book irritated me not just the narrative voice. The Woman in White has multiple narrators again because no single person had sight of all the events, and it was an excuse for Collins to show off different voices.

    The best example from my 21st century reading is Buddha Da which has entirely convincing multiple voices – all of them glaswegian. I loved that one, though I do know the feeling of dislocation as you move from one narrator to another.

    I think some books suit the third person, some the first, some more than one first person, and so on.


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