Saturday, 28 January 2017
There is never just one point of view. Every story has as many viewpoints as there are people involved. Of course, a simple side character (an NPC in RPG lingo) can’t tell the whole story, but that is not the point. You can tell the same story from different points of view and you will tell different stories.
I’ve chosen Sherlock Holmes as an example here, because there are a lot of modern authors using the characters and the world.
There are stories which are told by Sherlock himself - several stories Doyle wrote about adventures happening after Holmes’ retirement are told from Holmes’ perspective, because Watson isn’t around. There are stories which are told by Mrs. Hudson. There are stories which are told by Sherlock Holmes’ wife (Laurie R. King has written a whole series about that). There are also stories focusing on the Napoleon of Crime. Michael Kurland has written several novels in which Professor Moriarty is the protagonist - an anti-hero much more than a hero, of course. A short story published in ‘Victorian Villainy’ explains the one-sided vendetta between Holmes and Moriarty.
One of the most interesting books centring around Moriarty, however, is “The Hound of the D’Urbervilles” by Kim Newman. Not only do the stories told in it skirt stories written by Doyle himself, the first story, “A Volume in Vermillion” sets up “A Study in Scarlet,” the first Sherlock Holmes novel, for example. Newman gives a voice not to Moriarty directly, but to his second in command, Colonel Moran. Sebastian Moran is less ‘smitten’ with his boss than Watson is with Holmes. He recognizes Moriarty for what he is: dangerous, deadly, and utterly without morals. Neither of them is hero material and Moran makes no excuses for it. Moran’s prose is rougher than Watson’s (and he’s basically obsessed with women and sex), but it’s fitting for the stories he tells. My personal favourites are “The Red Planet League” (which tells a story of Moriarty taking personal revenge on his ‘true’ nemesis - which isn’t Sherlock Holmes), “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions” (which features a lot of penny dreadful characters and trinkets), and “The Greek Invertebrate” (which gives a glimpse into Moriarty’s family by introducing his two brothers, both also named ‘James’). Sherlock Holmes features in the last story, but he’s only referred to as ‘the thin man of Baker Street’ (to tell him apart from Mycroft, ‘the fat man of Whitehall’). Moriarty hardly takes him seriously, he is after different prey when travelling to the continent.
The stories are full of action (after all, fights and assassinations are Moran’s job in the Firm) and usually also amusing to read. Moran’s voice might be less polished and sometimes plain outrageous for the time (like when he muses about his sexual adventures), but it’s an honest voice nevertheless. It’s a fitting voice for a man who spent 20 years as a soldier and is a little rough around the edges in all ways. Moran’s descriptions of Moriarty aren’t all that positive, but they feel honest. They are sharing rooms, so Moran has quite a bit of insight, but at the same time admits that he barely understands what goes on in Moriarty’s brain. That’s not his provenance, after all.
So, to go back to the topic of writing a story from another perspective, what can we learn from the many stories about Sherlock Holmes and his world not told by the ‘regular’ voice of Watson?
First of all, chose a suitable character, one who can tell a lot about the story. Holmes himself knows what is happening, of course. More often than not, he knows more than Watson, but that can also take the thrill out of the story. Mrs. Hudson should have a good idea about what happens under her roof, too. Holmes’ wife isn’t your traditional late-Victorian woman who doesn’t even pretend to be interested in her husband’s work, either. She works side by side with him and thus has a very good idea of what’s happening, too. The same is true for telling stories from the other side of the law. Whether Moriarty is an anti-hero like in Kurland’s stories or an outright villain like in Newman’s, it is interesting to see what he does, too. Someone in his vicinity, like Moran, can thus tell an interesting story as well.
The second thing is that every person has their own voice. Holmes tells a story differently from Watson. Moran has a different voice, too, as has Mrs. Hudson, as has Mrs. Holmes. The voice has to fit with the personality of the person whose viewpoint you are using. Mrs. Holmes is much younger than her husband, essentially a person from another era. She sees and understands things differently not only than Holmes, but also than Watson did. Moran is a former soldier and big game hunter. He sees things differently than Watson, even though they both share the military background. Moran also is unashamedly a bad person. He enjoys killing, stealing, and cheating at cards and he is not ashamed to admit that. He likes to brag about the women he slept with or the people or animals he killed (to him, prey is prey, not matter what it is).
As a third thing, you also need to keep in mind what a viewpoint character can see and know. It’s not a coincidence Watson and Holmes share rooms (and in Newman’s book, so do Moran and Moriarty). Watson’s narrative usually seems a little less informed once he has moved out of Baker Street again after marriage. The more time the viewpoint character spends with the main character (if both are not identical), the more they usually know. They are more likely to be there when things happen that way, too.
What use can it be, though, to try and tell a story from a different perspective? You will get a different story out of it every time. Try to tell the same story from the perspective of both the protagonist and the antagonist and you will be looking at two different stories, at different things happening, at different outcomes. Especially if it feels like your story is going nowhere, try to tell it from a different perspective and see if it works better that way.