Seeing through the eyes of the protagonist

Here’s a post that I liked, but also found amusing: Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes: Literally

Literally in the sense of figuratively. I bet you guessed that, didn’t you?

This use of “literally” is not exactly a pet peeve of mine. It makes me roll my eyes in a fairly tolerant way, comparatively. However, if you stick an adverb off the end of your sentence like that, it helps if you actually mean the adverb in question instead of its direct opposite. That’s not the only reason I thought this was a mildly amusing post. Here’s what gave me a chuckle:

A continuity edit might unearth scenes inadvertently illuminated with:

  • Three full moons in a month. If your story is set on Earth, this just isn’t possible. And you can only count on two full moons per month once in a blue moon (every two to three years, which is exceptional enough that it should be noted). 

That’s kind of funny when thinking of the Tuyo world, where “month” can’t be based on the phases of the Moon because the phase of the Moon depends on where the Moon’s attention has been directed, and the phase of the Moon is therefore unpredictable from night to night and can almost certainly change in a single night.

I’m aware that some readers really have trouble with this. I don’t want to pull out specific reviews to point at because I guess it’s fine with me if a reader just cannot tolerate a fantasy world that is not set on an ordinary planet. But the Tuyo world is most definitely not a planet. And it’s not simply flat, with astronomical objects up above. Obviously all sorts of astrological phenomena occur that cannot possibly depend on the laws of physics that control this sort of thing in the real world. I mean, I think this is really obvious. I’m thinking of adding a note about this to the series page just to help the interested reader believe that no, really, the Sun is not just a flaming ball of gas and the Moon is not just a brightly lit rock, and if you tried to build a rocket and blast your way into the heavens, that wouldn’t work.

As a side note, I’m also thinking of adding a note to the effect that the reader isn’t supposed to approve of everything in whichever society and that it’s honestly not sensible to assume that the author approves of everything in a fictional society either. I mean, I think most readers understand that the author is writing from inside the culture, not outside looking in. That’s what really should be meant by seeing through the eyes of the protagonist; not just seeing what the protagonist physically sees, but reflecting the protagonist’s attitudes and expectations. Most readers definitely know better than to assume the author thinks everything in the culture is great. But it’s pretty clear that a handful of readers aren’t sure about that. This makes me wonder — having re-read the Ancillary series recently and met Ann Leckie — whether many readers think that Leckie actually approves of the incredibly repressive Radchai society? Surely not? But maybe a small number of readers do think so.

I deliberately made Ugaro society much more female centered than Lau society — Ugaro society is in fact even more female centered than most readers have probably realized, though there are clear hints about that if you’re paying close enough attention. But the various roles available for women in Lau society, although not quite as circumscribed as it might look, are indeed pretty circumscribed. The reader is not supposed to think that the social role of talon wives is just peachy, and it always surprises me a little when a review suggests that the reader thinks I, as the author, am trying to make that kind of social role seem great. Because, no.

But back to the linked post:

  • The sun rising and setting through the same picture window. To avoid this problem, draw a map of how the house is situated, adding any buildings around it that might affect when the sunrise or sunset might be seen. Doing so may reveal other story possibilities—an obstacle that means the sun hits the neighbor’s house well before your character’s could be an interesting clue, for example. Tall housing on narrow streets, whether in modern America or ancient Europe, may never allow direct sunlight.

Those are good suggestions for mistakes that are entirely plausible. I don’t actually draw floorplans of houses, but I do certainly try to keep in mind that if the windows look out to the west, then they look out toward the west. Even in the Tuyo world, the Sun sets in the west every single day. (Unless you’re in the land of the shades, of course; in that case the Sun rises in the west. But again, every single day.

I clearly recall how, when he read my very first (unpublished, later reconstituted) fantasy trilogy, my brother said, “How’s this character sneaking through the city at night? Because the streets are probably too narrow to let any moonlight come down to street level.”

Of course the answer is: streetlights lit by magic. I think since then I have always remembered to add light to city streets, if I need anyone to make their way through a city at night.

There’s much more about the physical sense of sight and looking through the protagonist’s eyes in the linked post:

If the reader might wonder how the POV character can see, it’s best to provide an explanation. In Southernmost, author Silas House does just that when his protagonist, Asher, must search for his missing son in low light after a devastating flood:

Here the earth was so wet it sucked at his shoes. Up ahead were the thick woods crowding the ridge behind their house. Asher stopped at the mouth of the path to allow his eyes to adjust. The woods were all blackness, the full trees of high summer blocking out any starlight that might have guided his way. But he knew these woods so well he could walk through them with his eyes closed.

That’s not super believable, actually, if you’ve ever tried to walk through the woods at night, not to mention with your eyes closed. But it’s quick and moves the story forward and it’s probably believable enough, which is what matters.

If you’re writing fantasy, it’s easier. Witchlight, magelight, a falselantern created by some kind of magic you needn’t describe in detail — there are definitely advantages to writing fantasy! Someday I would like to write a novel where part of the setting is based on the underground city of Cappadocia, and if and when I get to that, it would be a much more pleasant place to live than any real underground city could have been in the real world, because hey, why not? You could have real farms and gardens in an underground city, pre-technology, if you just create the right kind of magic to let that happen.

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7 thoughts on “Seeing through the eyes of the protagonist”

  1. One of the reasons I really like seeing the Ugaro and Lau societies contrasted is that we can see ways in which BOTH of them are flawed (at least from our modern perspective)—I wouldn’t want to be a Lau girl but I wouldn’t enjoy being an Ugaro boy either! It baffles me that many readers just stop at “depiction = endorsement.”

    But, speaking of three moons a month, I’m working on a space opera where the space station operates on three 8-hour shifts in a 24-hour cycle, and it is maddeningly difficult not to use “the previous day / night” when my protagonists have never walked on a planet and have no concept of nighttime!

  2. Mary Beth, I feel your pain! I’m sure I need to adjust that in the SF novel I’ve recently finished, but haven’t gone back through and smoothed out. I know I used “alterday” some of the time, but I would bet money I also used “night.”

  3. There can be linguistic holdovers that would make ‘day/night’ plausible. But after a few generations it might fall out of use. I’m thinking of things like the still occasionally seen ‘icebox’ when everything has been done by electricity (or other power) for decades. Or the hanging on of analog clock position references ‘on your 2’ or ‘watch your 6’, meaning watch your back, or off to your right and a little ahead. Steerswoman kept those, IIRC.

  4. In A Diabolical Bargain, Nick escapes through a lightless tunnel. He also has to (for reasons) get dressed there, fortunately with clothes he had in hand.

    I forget how much revision it took me to ensure that he didn’t see a thing.

  5. Well, Lise, it’s USED that way. But that’s so different from the literal meaning that it’s still funny.

  6. It’s really pretty amazing how long obsolete words/phrases do hang on. I’ve never seen a tenterhook, but I know what “to be on tenterhooks” means. Likewise a lot of sayings date back to the Romans — you can tell because they are the same in other European languages. And then there are the relatively quick changes, like “literally” changing to also mean “figuratively,” which has happened in my lifetime.

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