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Writing from Information Starved Points of View


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If anyone has thoughts about how to handle writing information starved scenes, such as anything from the perspective of a newborn or a less than sentient animal (especially a newborn animal), that's the nut I'm trying to crack right now. It's hard to explain things if the point of view character lacks the needed context to understand, so it's been an interesting challenge.

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I think the most important questions you need to ask here are: 

1. How much does my character currently understand? 
2. How much are they capable of understanding? 
3. How close of a POV do I want to write? 

The answer to the first two questions will differ depending on what kind of character you choose to write. A puppy old enough to be adopted by a human family, for instance, will have more knowledge and perhaps more context than a human newborn on their way home from the hospital; but that puppy has a much lower limit to how much context they are able to gain over the course of their life than the newborn does. The newborn will probably gain their knowledge more slowly than the puppy does, but they'll eventually be able to understand the Narnia books. The puppy will not. 

For the third question, it's partly a matter of personal preference and partly a matter of what you think you can make work. For two very different, very successful examples, I'd recommend Socks by Beverly Cleary and You are a Dog: Life Through the Eyes of Man's Best Friend by Terry Bain. 

Socks follows the first two years of a kitten named Socks who is adopted by a young couple named Mr. and Mrs. Bricker and must adjust to the arrival of their first child. It's told in a somewhat distant third-person past narration: Common things Socks doesn't understand are named, even when Socks doesn't come to understand what they are. An example is when the baby's grandmother takes out some knitting, and Socks stares at the flashing needles in fascination. He doesn't understand what she's doing, but the reader does, and so Cleary tells us that Nana is knitting. We also get brief statements about what Mr. and Mrs. Bricker are thinking in various scenes, and we don't really see Sock's thoughts. Yet it works. Socks comes alive as a character with personality to spare, and his narration always feels relatable, yet somewhat alien—exactly how a story told from the point of view of a cat should feel. 

You are a Dog, on the other hand, doesn't really follow a specific dog, but rather covers some common dog behaviors and adventures (such as the evil vacuum). It's told in a close second-person present narration, and as such needs to place the reader in a dog's shoes (or lack thereof). Early on, it's stated that you (the dog) have a "sense name" for most things, such as the people in your life and dogs you know. So in one vignette, focusing on a senior dog, the family matriarch is called She-Who-Makes-Soothing-Noises-With-Her-Voice (or something to that effect). Another vignette, about a dog whose owner receives a visit from a friend with a small dog, refers to said small dog as Small Fluffy Friend. Things like vacuums are named, even if their function isn't quite understood by the dog ("The vacuum wants to eat you and eat the furniture and eat the children"). The book feels very different from Socks, yet it also works. We get a funny, sometimes heartwarming and sometimes heart-wrenching look at what might be going through a dog's mind, and it feels authentic. 

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