Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pay Attention to Your Point of view

If you're a white, heterosexual male, you probably don't realize most media assume everyone is a white, heterosexual male. This is particularly true in film, as any woman who has had to sit through interminable views of other women's breasts between the good parts of a movie will tell you, but it's pretty much a constant throughout all western-influenced media. World-wide media if you leave out the 'white' part.(All men are not dogs, btw. Our biology is hardwired to pump adrenalin and endorphin at the sight of attractive women. Back when fire was dismissed as a passing fad and fighting other males tooth-and-club to win females' favor was de rigueur, this made us aggressive and impervious to pain. Now it makes us logic-impaired and spendthrift.)

Most folks my age have had the experience of revisiting a story or movie we enjoyed in the 60s or 70s and cringing at the sexual and racial stereotypes that we missed at the time and didn't remember forty years later. (Or, if you're younger, you may have wondered why people didn't protest - or even mention - the racism or sexism of some old 'classic' movies when the films were new.) The flipside of this is of course is films in which historical characters have modern mores and worldviews, usually fighting against the injustice of what really happened.

Unfortunately many historical novels - particularly historical romances - are equally anachronistic. I will cheerfully go along with a bit of historical rewriting to tell a good story, especially when it's clear the storyteller knows what she's doing. I even recognize that some sanitizing of the past is a prerequisite of the genre - few readers find leading men who regard hygiene as satanic and women as property romantic. It's likely anyone who wrote a 'romance' about how women were actually treated 700 years ago would run the risk of being roundly decried as a misogynist. But I cannot abide an accuracy-less tale of the hero and/or heroine, wearing gorgeous period costumes, using their 21st century values to overcome the intolerance of their 10th-through-19th century society.

As readers we tend to not recognize a writer's point of view as a point of view when it's similar to our own, it's when the writer's point of view, the underlying assumption of her narrative, differs from our own that we notice. For example: The majority of my fellow science-fiction writers fall somewhere along the agnostic-rationalist spectrum. Assumptions that faith and intellect are mutually exclusive, or that all religions are scams are common. While fantasy writers acknowledge intelligence and belief can coexist, most would agree with the characterization of formal religions. Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which lovable waifs save the world by hunting down and killing God, is probably the most extreme example, but the prejudice runs through much of both genres. Our younger daughter is a fan of anime and was initially hesitant to share some of her favorites with me because she wasn't sure how I'd react. The Japanese popular attitude toward Christianity is shaped by the Catholic Church's militant missionary efforts a few centuries back. When it's mentioned at all, any monotheistic religion is depicted as repressive, hypocritical, focused on profit/political control, and opposed to anything it can't control. (Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that non-Christians, particularly here in the USofA, are routinely beaten over the head by social conservatives who link patriotism, integrity, and faith to their cultural assumptions.)

As writers we like to think we don't let our points of view distract or offend readers, that our audience is certain of our goodwill and understands our intent. But. Things so innocuous to us as to be invisible can completely undo us. Let me use a couple of personal examples. Most of you know my humor runs towards word games and willful misconstruing of information, but you may not know I also enjoy roast-like insult humor. I once was quick with the snipe and the put-down (as I recall, Dayton's response to my first e-mail to him was "That had better be a joke.") but these days not so much. I learned to curb my barbed missives only after demolishing my relationship with a writer with whom I'd worked. In my published fiction I have had to mend fences with a friend of mine who's a Wiccan for a stereotypical depiction of her faith, and over the years have had to acknowledge unconsciously sexist, racist or USA-centric assumptions/depictions/word choices pointed out by readers.

I am not advocating that we edit our beliefs and worldview out of our work. The forces that shaped us shape our work. Even the most well-intentioned efforts - especially the most well-intention efforts - to avoid offending anyone can expunge everything of value from our work. By the same token, if we are to master our craft we must first master our tools. The intentional point of view of the narrator, seen or unseen, can convey texture and nuance to our reader; it's an important part of storytelling. By the same token, unconsciously letting our personal point of view choose our words can throw our reader completely out of the story.

Pay attention to your point of view.


Liane Spicer said...

I'm very much aware that my narrative POV is reflective of/influenced by my personal POV and I wouldn't want it any other way. I rely on my first reader and/or editor to point out where credibility of character or plot is undermined. Like you mentioned, it's unconscious, thus difficult to assess on our own.

G. B. Miller (aka G) said...

Excellent post.

I don't think I've had a lot of problems with POV as much with unintentionally writing sterotypical characters.

Fortunately, other sets of eyes were able to catch and pointe some key impossibilities to a few of my characters, which allowed me to tweak and create more realistic and believable characters.

KeVin K. said...

Liane - Of course who we are affects how we write. I count myself a southern writer, with all the idiosyncratic grammar, word choices, and sentence structure that entails. But should be vigilant regarding unnecessary or unintended bits of our personality or world view that might get in the way of our storytelling.

Right, G.B. Our brain uses broad categories in organizing information, grouping things under labels. And it's lazy; it will often use the broad label instead of looking for the specific datum filed under it. If we don't keep an eye on this clichés, stereotypes, and cardboard characters result; at worst we unthinkingly hurt, anger, or alienate others. Writing is our craft, words are our tools, and it's our responsibility to use them well.

Simon black said...

Great post, very interesting read.