I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how a character’s perspective shapes a story, and how a story takes its cues from its main characters. By perspective, I don’t mean point-of-view—that is, the persons. Instead, I mean the unique worldview of a narrator or point-of-view character.
The backstories and distinct ways of thinking that characters come packaged with influence how a character acts, and how they perceive story events and other characters—in other words, perspective.
When we read, we understand a story through the perspectives shown. For instance, a novel like A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, which has multiple point-of-view characters, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which features an omniscient narrator able to dip into each individual’s mind, provide many more perspectives than a narrative with a single narrator.
So how do characters create stories?
You know that feeling you get when a character feels right for the story? A lot of that has to do with how perspective interacts with plot and relationships.
A character’s viewpoint informs how they think about and interact with the world. A performer might view people’s actions as types of performances and might watch their own behavior closely; a baker might think in terms of ingredients and hospitality; an ordinary person thrown into a fantastical or dangerous world might be distinguished by their ineptitude, skepticism, or unexpected, unconventional cleverness.
This isn’t to say that characters can’t be at odds with the narrative—high fantasy utilizes this a lot in its staple of the farm boy who leaves home on an adventure—but that has to be done deliberately. It can be used to create a sense of dissonance, a sense of being on the outside of the story that we as readers want to see resolved.
Authors don't only need to choose the right character for the job, they must also look at the ways a character views themselves and their place in the story, and show how that drives what’s happening.
I’ve noticed that narratives tend to focus their attention on what’s most important to a character. I recently read The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, which features a deeply flawed character who views the world in hedonistic terms. The narrative watches him retreat to the comfort of his vices, and all the while his relationships compel him to seek better ways to live.
Narratives take their cues from characters. After all, characters are the reason we care. And as a narrative reveals itself through unique perspectives, the characters’ priorities become the priorities we most associate with the narrative.