If any of you have taken advanced English classes of some kind, you might know a little about how readers can be deceived by an "unreliable narrator," as they're called: someone who's suffering from a mental illness, has a highly skewed perspective, or has other reasons to be lying to themselves and to the reader. Advanced readers know that you can't take everything that any POV narrator of a story says at face-value. Even plain ordinary people aren't aware of all the depths and intricacies of themselves and their situations.
As you may be aware of, recently I've been very engaged in analyzing TV and movies for their writing, structure, and tropes. One thing I began thinking about is POV and the way it affects the audience in light of the BBC show Sherlock.
You see, I was editing WHAT IT TAKES TO DEAL, and my critique partner Julia warned me to be careful about the way my narrator speaks. Suzanne has a lot of attitude, and when Julia pointed it out, I realized that sometimes she did actually come across as cruel and unrelatable. I hadn't even noticed when I was writing. Struggling, though, to figure out the line between being interestingly attitude-y and being standoffish, I said to Julia, somewhat in jest, "But Sherlock's a complete jerk, and we love that show!"
Cue choir of angels.
Up until that point, I hadn't thought much about POV other than as a starting point for writing each novel. As an experienced reader, it came somewhat natural to me to analyze the narrator's motives. As a writer, all I really thought about was, "Is this going to be first person or third person? Great, let's write." I definitely hadn't thought about POV in movies and TV. To me, those were always third person. I hadn't considered the deeper idea of which character they were focused on in the third person, which was the narrator vs. the main character. I hadn't even begun to think about how POV might affect the viewer/reader's opinion on the characters.
But Julia made a fantastic point, which I'd like to get into a little here, using Sherlock as the main example.
For those of you unfamiliar with BBC Sherlock (shame on you), Sherlock is a modern TV adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, in which a war doctor named John Watson becomes flatmates with a brilliant and extremely rude consulting detective named, you guessed it, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is played by the beautiful, beautiful Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Watson is played by Martin Freeman.
In this show, Sherlock is a jerk. Like, really, a jerk. He's a total genius at deducting and solving crimes, but he has no social skills, or rather, doesn't really care to have social skill. He calls himself "a high-functioning sociopath", which isn't actually accurate, but that description does reflect the way Sherlock commonly acts. Most the time, his entire focus is on solving the puzzle, on being a genius, and he doesn't give a potato about anyone else, which means he is very rude. Sometimes, in order to solve the crime, he becomes downright manipulative. But the Sherlock fandom, which is very large, vocal, and slightly insane, absolutely loves him.
Julia's response to my protest is the answer to this question. Sherlock is the main character, but he's not the narrator. Sherlock isn't from his point of view. It's from John's.
The show begins with John, in his nightmares (an intimate place, really, to start out in) and from there into him meeting Sherlock. We watch John as he gets to know Sherlock, as they become friends, and we see through John's eyes who Sherlock is to him. We're not the ones who like Sherlock. John is. As time has passed in the show and John's friendship has softened Sherlock, we've shifted a little more towards Sherlock's POV, seeing John sometimes through his eyes instead of the other way around, but from the get-go, this story was not Sherlock's. It was John's.
That realization opened up a lot for me in terms of thinking about narrators and perspective. I've paid a lot more attention since then in movies and TV, trying to figure out who the narrator is, who the main character is, who we're supposed to sympathize with the most, and how that affects our participation in and viewership of the story. In Supernatural, as I've raced my way through the seasons, for example, it was clear to me at the beginning that Sam was meant to be the "narrator" as such, but as time has passed, that has shifted over to Dean. In Snow White and the Huntsman, one of my favorite movies, Snow White isn't the POV character, the Huntsman is, for which reason it does lack quite a bit in the female empowerment area.
POV in writing is clearer than it is in movies and TV, that's certain. In books, you've instantly got focus around a central character, whether it's in first person or third. But I think this realization about TV POVs will also increase my skill as a writer when trying to get the proper reaction out of an audience.
This stuff's important. And I'm grateful to Julia and to Sherlock for helping me be more aware of it.
Thanks for reading, and come back next time for a post on Pinterest!
Images via the BBC.