Story Of Your Life

Books on writing often warn beginning authors against switching perspectives. This refers to the sometimes disorienting technique of hopping the POV (Point OF View) from one character to another. Indeed, when it’s done within scenes or within paragraphs, it can be confusing, but like all “rules”, this is more of a guideline than an absolute. As always, anything can work if it truly serves the story. I was just talking to Garth Stein yesterday who wrote a bestseller from the POV of a dog.  Anything is possible.

One of my favorite truisms says, “A miracle is a shift in perspective.” The author of this quote was not referring to narrative POV shifts, though in a way she could have been. We are all familiar with what I think of as a favorite sit-com device—the same event retold from each character’s perspective to comic effect. Often, this kind of story will include a version showing what “actually” happened, often identifiable by the characters not behaving like circus parodies of themselves.

Yet reality, it seems to me, exists only through the prism of perspective. As much as philosophers and scientists might yearn for an absolute, such a thing does not exist within human knowing. We are, by the purely physical limitations of eyesight alone, bound to our unique (literal) view of the world. Include thoughts, personal histories, cultures, gender and all the other vagaries that might influence perception, and life seems like a thing reflected in shattered glass, leading to existential cries of, “What’s really going on here?”

The gift of human imagination, however, is that reality isn’t fixed. What the novelist might learn in moving POV from one character to another is reality’s ultimate generosity. We are never bound to one perception by anything more than our own determination to maintain it. Just as one character might see a threat where another sees opportunity, our perception that we are not smart enough, or pretty enough, or fast enough, or rich enough, is nothing more than one of those sit-com character’s take on the current state of things. As the author of your life, you have the power to move at will from character to character, as it were, searching for the perspective that serves you best, that tells the story of your life as you actually wish to hear it.

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