Ever since coming home from the Peace and Justice Pilgrimage to Alabama I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the concept of perspective. Whose stories have I added to my own to widen my perspective of the world? What sources do I trust to provide me with information to deepen my awareness? How often do I encounter points of view that differ from mine and allow them to challenge and expand me?
The so-called “Information Age” has become increasingly siloed. You can tailor your intake of “news” so that your preferred perspective on current events is the only one you ever hear. You can scrub your social media feeds of anyone who disagrees with you or who owns a different life experience. You can skate through life never, ever having one of your thoughts challenged by another perspective.
The echo chambers in our own heads become the only gospel we will believe. They shape, or should I say warp, our identities. Our self worth becomes wholly tied to the points of view we have manicured for ourselves. Thus we defend our narrowed perspectives at all costs instead of trying to expand them.
A Certain Point of View
Consider this famous exchange between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Return of the Jedi.
Luke: Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-wan: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.
Luke: A certain point of view?
Obi-wan: Luke, you’re going to find many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
The truths we cling to. “Clinging” is the right verb for sure. When we allow our carefully cultivated points of view to define us completely, there is no room for expansion. Yet without room for expansion, how will we grow? We’ll be like potted plants that have outgrown their confines and have nowhere for their roots to dig.
After nearly twenty straight years of school from elementary through my graduate program, I spent several years not really gaining any new input. I didn’t read much besides fluff, and after a while, I realized my knowledge was getting stale. I was running over all the same tracks in my mind, never blazing any new trails. So I began reading again, and soon my brain started coming back to life. In recent years, my reading has taken me down so many tracks that I had never before considered. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance I felt reading about experiences so different from mine physically hurt – but it was the good kind of hurt, like after a vigorous workout. With each new book, each new conversation, each new encounter, I could see my perspective growing. I tried to let go the unexamined truths to which I clung, and with my hands open I could now grasp deeper truths that were new to me.
Colorizing the Great War
Perspective shapes narrative – in both fiction and nonfiction, and indeed, in our lives. I recently watched the new documentary from Peter Jackson about World War I called They Shall Not Grow Old. On this Memorial Day, I would highly recommend it. The mandate handed to Jackson was to tell a story using one hundred hours of footage from a certain archive. How did he and his team distill one hundred hours into a powerful, grisly, beautiful hour and a half? By finding one story to tell, one perspective, one narrative. The filmmakers decided to center their narrative on the common British soldier fighting in the trenches. This decision meant great footage from the archive would not make the film: footage about the new use of aircraft in warfare, about the women’s role in keeping the war machine running at home, about the experience of soldiers from the British colonies, and about life on the homefront. Jackson decided to tell one story thoroughly, rather than what he called “bits and bobs” from many different stories.
Jackson also decided that the only voices the viewer would hear would be first person accounts from veterans themselves. The team listened to over 600 hours of interviews recorded by the BBC back in the 1960s. They cut together the experience of dozens and dozens of soldiers to tell the story from the day of their recruitment to their return from the war. Every frame of footage was “shot on location” as the credits say. Every word spoken was said by someone who was there. There’s nothing of strategy and troop movements – that was the concern of generals. There’s just a lot of mud. And a lot of death. And a lingering wonderment about what it was all for.
Watching this documentary expanded my point of view on the Great War because the filmmakers so carefully crafted a perspective from which to tell the story. There were certainly other ways to tell this story, but I doubt the emotional weight of the veterans’ words and the colorized footage would have been as impressive.
The documentarian is not the only one who has to worry about crafting perspective. Even blockbuster filmmakers can take great care in shaping narrative to tell a particular story. Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors behind several recent movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, often say their goal is to subvert expectations and deliver something that will strike audiences in a new way. In this realm, their apex achievement to date is the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
Three times near the end of the movie, it looks like the Avengers might actually stop Thanos from completing his stated goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers.
- First, Spiderman almost gets the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos during the fight on Titan.
- Second, in Wakanda, Scarlet Witch destroys the Mind Stone, killing Vision in the process. But Thanos uses the Time Stone to reverse her action, and he kills Vision by plucking the stone from his head.
- Third, Thor throws his new axe into Thanos’s chest. Surely, this is it. The Avengers have won! Thanos is struggling for air as Thor pushes Stormbreaker into him.
But no. “You should have gone for the head,” says Thanos. He snaps his fingers, and the power of the Infinity Stones allow him to carry out his plan all at once. People all over the battlefield begin to turn to dust: Black Panther, Bucky Barnes, Scarlet Witch, Groot. On Titan, everyone vanishes (Spidey!) except for Iron Man and Nebula.
The film ends with Thanos in a shack on an unknown planet watching the sun. A look of grim victory passes over his faces.
Fade to black.
When I first saw it in the theater, there was dead silence for several seconds when the directors names came on the screen. How could that be the end? The Avengers lost! Everyone knew it was the first of a two-parter, but still, the Avengers lost? It was the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers.
Or was it?
It depends on perspective. I’ve watched a lot of interviews of the Russo Brothers because I love their take on storytelling, and the one thing they said over and over again about Infinity War was that it was Thanos’s movie.
Thanos is the main character. And if you watch it from his point of view, the movie is not a cliffhanger at all. It is complete. He accomplishes his stated purpose, and the film ends with him “watch[ing] the sun rise on a grateful universe,” as he says earlier in the movie.
That’s some incredible storytelling. The whole time, you’re convinced you’re watching a standard superhero film – of course, against all odds the heroes will win. But it’s not their movie, and you don’t know that until the last scene. It’s brilliant. And it shows the importance of perspective. Infinity War is a complete film from one point of view (Thanos’s) and a horribly incomplete one from another (that of the remaining heroes).
Depending on how I count, I’ve written either five or eight novels. (Three of them are more like novelizations, so we’ll say five for the purposes of this essay.) There are many difficult parts of the novel-writing process: moving from premise to plot, writing both something and about something, and of course, the middle. The middle third of the novel is so hard to write. (Can’t they all just be beginnings and endings?)
Those items are all big, broad strokes that you have to keep in mind during the writing process. But they don’t necessarily live at the top of your brain in the moment by moment activity of putting words on the page. You know what does?
Point of view. Perspective.
My fantasy novels all have multiple “POV characters”; that is, characters through whom the reader lives the story. Chapter by chapter, section by section, the point of view (POV) shifts from one character to the next and back again. (This is only one way to write a novel – there are plenty others.) Because I have chosen to tell my stories in this manner, I am constrained in several ways:
- Within each section, I have to be aware of what the POV character knows and does not know.
- Therefore, there’s no omniscient narrator. I write in what’s called “Third person limited” perspective.
- If I enter the POV character’s inner thoughts, I better have a really good reason to do so; after all, the whole section is from that person’s perspective.
- POV characters need to have enough personality and distinctiveness that the reader knows which one the narrator is with at any given moment.
Writing in this manner allows me to explore the perspectives of many characters throughout each novel. In my second fantasy novel, The Halfling Contagion, the antagonist is one of the POV characters. Writing Reave Feldonsire was a real challenge, but one I savored because I got to know him. Indeed, I had to understand him or else he would have been a pretty wooden bad guy.
Writing several POV characters in a single novel is great practice for holding multiple perspectives in tension within myself. If my characters can view an event from multiple angles, then I should be able to, as well. My novel writing, then, is practice for the life skill of expanding my own perspective by encounter those of others.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Not a whole novel at first – just write a scene between two characters. Write it twice, once from each perspective, and see how this practice can train you to hold multiple points of view in creative tension. Write both sides of a couple’s standard fight. Or think back to a Christmas morning in your childhood and write about it from the points of view of everyone present. This is a rich exercise that I commend to you.
I am convinced that one of the secrets to a meaningful life is seeking out perspectives that are different from our own and learning from them. Such a practice leads to personal growth, empathy for ones once considered the “other,” and a more peaceful and just society. As you interrogate your own experience, take note of the standard sources of your knowledge. What perspectives are missing? What can you read, what can you watch, who can you talk to in order to expand your point of view?
Once you begin engaging this work, your brain and your heart will hurt from time to time. These are growing pains. Don’t let your cognitive dissonance propel you back into the ignorance of willful narrowness. Rather, push through to the expansive vista of greater perspective on the other side. And then, keep expanding.