Perspectives and Pronouns.

I can hardly believe I’ve gone this long without devoting a blog to perspective and the respective strengths of the available approaches. The point of perspective is the window through which the reader views the world you create and so it is worth some consideration.

I’ve mentioned before that, when building investment in characters, much of the audience has limited attention/patience. The magic number for characters to engage a reader’s emotional investment is seven but that’s not to limit how many characters you write. Not every reader is going to engage with every character, as a group they should be diverse in their outlooks and personalities to create a dynamic series of relationships and interactions.

First up, First Person. So, when writing in first person perspective you are the character. The attraction of FPP is putting your reader in the MC’s shoes, to ‘feel’ what they feel and see the world through their eyes. Via their perceptions you can influence the reader so, when they respond to a stimulus, the reader shares their responses. Commonly FPP is featured in investigation narratives, crime stories and the like, when you’re limiting the information the reader receives to fall inline with what the investigators are learning. But, writing from a character’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself to writing from one character’s perspective. In order to increase the reader’s emotional investment, to vilify the villain, it often serves to write from the point of view of a victim, whether it’s a kidnap plot or a murder, a citizen on a far planet suffering under an unjust dictator. Gareth Powell, in his Embers of War trilogy, writes first person perspectives for some, but not all, his characters, including the Spaceship and the alien engineer. He doesn’t write as every character, but a selection of mains, in the second book (I’m reading the third at time of writing) there are a total of seven perspectives through the book. Jim Butcher, in his Dresden Files series, reserves writing from the PoV of characters other that Harry Dresden for his accompanying short-stories. Maria V. Snyder’s Study series, The Chronicles of Ixia, drops the reader into a vibrant fantasy world without holding their hand and feeds information to the reader in a steady, almost infuriating drip.

Second Person Perspective was, at one time, a rarely used PoV restricted to ‘choose your own adventure’ books but there is a growing body of work in the mainstream market. What distinguishes Second from First Person perspective is, rather than using ‘I’ the author, in prose, uses ‘You’. Also the entire piece is written in present tense, everything happening to the MC happens ‘now’. Of course, with Second Person, any deviation to write from another PoV could be quite a jarring experience for the reader. To my mind it’s also the hardest perspective to use, which is why I don’t. Personally I’d rather be wrestling over the most evocative way to describe a scene than wrangling every sentence into present tense.

Third Person offers the most scope for observing the characters around the setting. Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts, military SF set in the Warhammer 40k universe, David Weber’s Honour Harrington series. Stories with a larger cast or where events that don’t directly involve the MC that the reader still benefits from knowing about. Some of my favourite sections from the Camelot Trilogy to write were of the Antagonist Morgana le Fay. I won’t apologise for revelling in writing my villains, it’s always satisfying to set them up for an inevitable fall. Third Person lets you follow multiple characters with minimal disruption to the reading experience.

One of my goals as a writer is to submerge the reader in my stories, to get them involved, immersed in the story they are reading. With that in mind I’ve been writing in first person and I’ve tried, while building the respective MC’s personalities, to write from a point of gender neutrality so as to immerse the reader more completely. It’s a risk, gender identity is widely considered a foundation stone of a character’s identity, but why? It’s just another form of stereotype. By identifying the gender of a character there’s an expectation of certain modes of behaviour, subgroups and categories they might adhere to. In bypassing this step I’ve had to make an extra effort to establish the character personality, to stamp their identity in the reader’s awareness. I’ve also gone to lengths, in my space adventure story, to step away from our established gender binary. As my wonderfully insightful editor noted in an outburst worthy of Doctor Bob at the outset, alien species are unlikely to share our biology, why would they share our binary and our societal expectations of gender at all? I’m not exactly knowledgeable enough in the realms of theoretical xeno-biology to delve too deeply but I’ve made a few reasonable references and attempted to minimise use of the he/she pronoun in favour of they as a singular pronoun (the use in which it originally evolved alongside ‘thou’, ‘thine’ and ‘ye’ and ‘yous’).

Writing fiction or fantasy is a blank-slate for exploring other ways of being. Other ways of existing and structuring societies and roles. Why then are so many based in known cultural, societal or gender defined examples? Largely it’s for familiarity, the more familiar the audience is with the setting the less the author has to explain. World building and exposition are most often blamed for slowing the pace but there’s no reason that they can’t be compelling in themselves. As I’ve said before, increasing representation is also important though I’d hesitate to ascribe existing terms used by the trans or non-binary communities to an ‘alien’ race. Even for the purpose of normalising pronouns such as Xe, or Xir the trans community have enough trouble being labelled as ‘other’ by hard-line conservatives without being labelled ‘alien’ by having their terms used for fictional races. It’s another subject I’d have to research at much greater depth and one that is most likely divisive in its own right.

For the time being, as a writer, I support in the ways I know I can. Normalising ‘they’ as a singular pronoun and increasing representation for marginalised communities to the best of my ability.

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