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When Perspective is the Story

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

One of the first things an editor wants to know about your novel is how many points of view you’ll use. In the broadest strokes, who gets a point of view will determine the structure of your story; down to the smallest detail, it will determine how perspective will illuminate it.

Will this be a story sunk deep inside one character’s perspective, as Garth Stein chose to do through Enzo, a dog, in The Art of Racing in the Rain? Will it alternate first-person perspectives that define and deepen the conflict between adversaries, as in Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog? Or will it represent the seven principal parties impacted by one young girl’s fight for self-determination, as in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper?

Such a decision shouldn’t be arbitrary. Some readers choose the novels they read for the way they allow a new perspective through which to view the world.

Not all POV decisions can be executed perfectly. Dubus’s plan worked out just fine until about three-quarters of the way through, when his story demanded that the reader know something that only a non-POV character was experiencing—which led to an odd chapter in the third-person perspective of a secondary character. Picoult—or perhaps her publisher—anticipated that her multiple points of view would be so hard to track that they put each character’s chapters in different fonts.

I could tell you never to do that because it’s cheesy and against all principles of good book design and if your novel is that confusing just simplify it, but this is how much readers care about such things: My Sister’s Keeper, which came out in 2004, still carries an Amazon ranking of #12 in contemporary literature. And Dubus’s novel, with that glaring POV switch, was an Oprah pick, a National Book Award finalist, and a #1 New York Times bestseller.

The most important thing is that these novelists told great stories through perspectives that would serve their telling.

So, how might you handle sixteen perspectives?

That’s how many WU contributor Bryn Greenwood [1] employed in her New York Times best-selling novel, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Why would she even attempt that, and how did she get away with it? Let’s see what we can learn from her mad skills.

Why choose multiple perspectives

Greenwood’s story zeroes in on a volatile cultural taboo: age of sexual consent. As much as I enjoy exploring topics that make us twitch, even I had never thought to look at this issue. I mean, we should be protecting our youth from adult predators, right? Case closed.

But what if the greater danger comes from the child’s own parents?

To raise this question in a way that would make her readers think—all while managing the emotions of readers whose opinions are entrenched—Greenwood chose a very loose POV structure that allowed her, in any given chapter, to dip into the perspective that would best illuminate that part of her story.

Her opening gets right to the heart of things, fittingly enough, through perspective. We meet her protagonist, Wavy, through the first-person voice of her cousin Amy, whose mother took in the five-year-old when Wavy’s parents had to do some jail time. From the outset we see Wavy the way others do: voiceless (Wavy rarely speaks) and odd (she won’t eat in front of other people). The second chapter moves to her next caretaker’s perspective—her grandmother’s. Only on page 23 do we finally hear from Wavy, and by this time, we start to get that the novel’s very structure is suggesting how hard Wavy will have to fight to make her own opinions matter in the world.

At the tender age of eight, Wavy meets her baby brother at her grandmother’s funeral. As her parents resume “guardianship,” Wavy becomes his main caretaker while her father cooks meth in a nearby barn and her mother sleeps the days away in a haze. Meanwhile, one of her father’s drug runners, 24-year-old Jesse Joe Kellen, who is obliged to Wavy for helping him after a motorcycle accident, starts to check in on her. He takes her to school. Pays her school fees. Cleans up the house. Cares for her. They stare up at the stars together, learn the constellations. They grow to love one another.

So who else do we hear from? Kellen, of course. That helps us know that his motivations aren’t of the creepy pedophile variety. Wavy’s teacher gives us an important outside perspective, as she thinks Kellen is Wavy’s father. Two of her father’s girlfriends, determined to win her father’s sexual favor, give us a look at the rarified world in which Wavy learns to be female. As Wavy grows old enough to try to seduce Kellen, her Aunt Brenda gives us the reasonable arguments any protective mother-figure might pose. Later, the perspective of the judge who jails Kellen for statutory rape provides the legal context.

Simplifying numerous perspectives

Why did I struggle so with Picoult’s seven perspectives, yet found Greenwood’s sixteen so easy to follow? For one thing, Greenwood showed such restraint, lol: in an interview at the back of the book, she explains that she had drafted more perspectives, but several didn’t make the cut. If you want more on this topic, I recommend that reading.

But the story is clarified through its unrelenting forward movement. Greenwood’s chapters do not flip back and forth through time, nor is one event explored through multiple perspectives; you can rely upon a confident, ever-spooling chronology to order the narratives, and trust Greenwood’s POV choices to effectively deliver that part of the story.

Oh, and there’s one more thing Greenwood does right: she does not attempt to converge those sixteen perspectives into a single beam of white light at novel’s end. Age of consent invokes deeply ingrained moral sensibilities and one novel isn’t going to change that. Wavy and Kellen’s story provides a prismatic look at the issue, and despite its satisfying ending, the prism still stands, casting a full rainbow of colors through its facets. Can you say, “perfect book club read”?

In the end, a perspective-heavy, issue-oriented novel need not change minds. It must simply open them. Greenwood’s sixteen perspectives do just that.

How did you decide on the POVs for your own work in progress, and what were you hoping to accomplish by doing so? Do you have other examples of stories that worked well precisely because of the choice of POV? Other thoughts on use of perspective in Greenwood’s book, if you’ve read it?

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.