Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Point of View, Viewpoint, and Perspective

Ambiguity gives natural language its power: when vocabulary and grammar are fluid we can describe new situations for which we otherwise would not have the words. Specificity and precision give science its power: being clear about an object, its preconditions, and the forces or processes applied to it helps us avoid spurious and distracting information that would confound the subject. Scientific language breeds jargon in an attempt to minimize ambiguity

I may be guilty of the same thing, but I found myself unsatisfied when I heard someone assert that viewpoint, point of view, and perspective were synonymous. Of course the statement is true in a general sense. Outside of writing about writing, I would never want to be constrained to use a particular term only in a particular context. But the advantage of having a writer as reader is that the writer has terms and concepts with which to more specifically identify issues with the narrative. Instead of guessing why a reader may have lost interest in a section it is much more helpful to hear that the pacing suffered because of the long descriptive paragraphs devoted to back story.

When someone says your story has a problem with point of view they could be referring to one or more of three related but distinct storytelling dimensions: the grammatical person, the viewpoint character, or issues of characterization.

Point of View

When we discuss point of view, we usually focus on the grammatical person and the associated narrative conventions. If a story is told in first-person then logically only events in which that person participated can be related directly. A story told in third-person can stay close to one character or follow many characters without defying logic. There are subtle and not-so-subtle challenges with each point of view over which beginning writers often stumble, so it’s almost always a good place to go when troubleshooting a story.

Viewpoint

Stories are always told from the viewpoint of one or several characters. Even in omniscient mode you still have the viewpoint of the narrator. The storyteller selects what to include and omit from the narrative. Generally, someone close to the action will include more detail than someone farther away. Because story is fundamentally about understanding the why behind the external events, we usually want to hear the story from the perspective of the person closest to the action—and while physical proximity is important, emotional proximity is even more so. Sometimes, however, the story is better served by someone removed from the action: Holmes is more brilliant in Watson’s telling because we never see the internal debate in the great detective’s head before he announces his deduction. Getting the viewpoint right is much trickier than fixing the grammar and logic of point of view. Reading widely helps develop your instinct for storytelling, but when it comes to your own story you may be best served by writing several scenes from different viewpoints to see which resonates most strongly.

Perspective

Beyond the mechanics and logic of constructing a consistent point of view and the choices of what belongs in the story we reach the rarefied air of the perspective the viewpoint character brings to the narrative. We would expect, for example, a monk who had taken a vow of pacifism to describe a fistfight differently than a Mongol warrior. (And how would that description differ if the monk were a former Mongol warrior?) A perpetual challenge when writing for children and young adults is to create characters whose perspective isn’t contaminated by the mature perspective of the author.

How, What, and Why

Perhaps a simpler way to understand the distinction between viewpoint, point of view, and perspective is that they address, respectively, how the story is told, what comprises the story, and why the character or characters telling the story believe it is significant. The distinctions are important because the way you fix a mechanical point of view problem, like a character in a first-person narrative knowing something they didn’t experience, is very different from the way you fix a problem in perspective, like a child having adult sensibilities.


Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net