A great deal has been written about “voice” and the use of the first person or an omnipotent narrator. Most discussions I have seen focus on the challenges of the first person, but as someone who works exclusively in the third person, I wanted in this essay to delve deeper into the challenge presented by the unlimited freedom this perspective offers.
The fact is, even if you can write a scene from any perspective you choose, not all perspectives are equally effective. This is not to say that there is any right or wrong way of looking at a particular scene, but rather that an author needs to be conscious of the impact perspective has and then be both creative and disciplined in the selection of the point of view selected.
Let me give some examples of what I mean. In Book II of the Leonidas Trilogy, the legendary encounter between Gorgo, Leonidas’ future wife, and the Ionian tyrant Aristagoras will be described. According the ancient historian Herodotus, Aristagoras came to Sparta seeking aid for the Ionian revolt against Persia in ca. 500 BC. He brought with him a map of the world etched in metal. In a private interview with the Spartan King Cleomenes, Aristagoras first stressed that the subjugation of the Ionian Greek cities by Persia was a shame to all Greece and most especially Sparta. Then he told the Spartan king that the Persians had poor weapons and no armor, making them easy to defeat and finally he showed Cleomenes this map and used it to describe the vast riches of the Persian Empire – that he suggested make Cleomenes “as rich as Zeus” if he just took the Spartan army across the Aegean to invade and defeat the Persian Empire. The proposal at first intrigued Cleomenes – until he learned that the Spartan army would have to march for three months from the Aegean coast just to reach the Persian capital. Shocked by this fact, Cleomenes angrily ordered Aristagoras to leave Sparta at once. Aristagoras, however, refused to take no for an answer. He followed Cleomenes with an olive branch, seeing that Cleomenes young daughter Gorgo was with her father, he told Cleomenes to send her away. Cleomenes refused. So Aristagoras was forced to speak in from of her. He now offered Cleomenes ever larger sums of money if the Spartan King would lead Sparta against Persia. As the sums got larger and larger, Gorgo apparently fearing that her father was weakening and tempted, spoke up to say: “Father, you better send this stranger away or he will corrupt you.”
Obviously, this scene is vitally important to any book about Leonidas and Gorgo as it tells the reader a great deal about the impending conflict with Persia, which will ultimately define Leonidas’ place in history. It tells us a great deal about his half-brother, predecessor and future father-in-law, Cleomenes at well, notably that he was thought susceptible to bribery. It tells us the important fact about Spartan society, namely that girl children were allowed to speak in the presence of their parents and even visiting males. And it tells us about Gorgo, her intelligence, courage and incorruptibility.
The scene can be told from four perspectives: Aristagoras’, Cleomenes’, Gorgo’s or from all three sides, switching from one to the other. Switching perspectives weakens the reader’s identification with any one character and makes the entire picture murkier, thus I almost always prefer to have only a single perspective for each discrete scene.
In this scene, Gorgo is the most important character of the three in the book; this means her perspective is most important for the book as a whole. This is, after all, her story, and there is much to be said for seeing this key event in her life from her point of view. However, she comes into the scene late. If I write the scene from her perspective, the reader (like Gorgo) can only come in upon the tail end of the conversation and try to piece together what has gone before. For the sake of showing more about the background of the Ionian revolt, it is desirableto show the entire conversation.
This leaves me with the option of writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view or Aristagoras’. Cleomenes is a secondary but important character in the novel as a whole. Indeed, he plays an important part in all three books of the Trilogy. Aristagoras, in contrast, only enters the novel once, in this one scene. Writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view therefore has a number of advantages. It enables me to give the reader more insight on this complex character, who is both Leonidas’ brother and Gorgo’s father. His behavior, most importantly his creeping mental illness, has a significant impact on Leonidas’ rise to power. But this scene occurs roughly 20 years before his dramatic suicide – before any signs of his madness were evident to observers. Furthermore, this particular scene offers no insight on his illness, only suggests he might have been corruptible – or not. After all, Gorgo might have spoken up completely unnecessarily.
Writing the scene from the perspective of Aristagoras offers a number of key advantages as well. Because he is a “stranger,” a foreigner, he is unfamiliar with Spartan customs and culture. Seeing the scene through his eyes is an opportunity to make the reader step back and remember how odd Sparta was – particularly with respect to the freedom given to girls. Only from Aristagoras’ perspective is Gorgo’s behavior truly shocking – indeed revolting and repulsive. From her own – or her father’s – perspective, it might have been a bit precocious or cheeky, but not really abhorrent. Furthermore, by seeing the scene from Aristagoras’ perspective, we can learn more about the revolt against Ionia, because he is the only one of the three in this scene, who knows much about it. Thus, despite being a fleeting character in the context of the Trilogy, this scene can be presented most effectively through his eyes.
For each and every scene in a novel, similar decisions must be made. I have often found it useful to write a particular scene from two or more perspectives, to test which works best. When rewriting, the first thing I do when I feel a scene does not work as well as I wanted, is to see if changing the perspective provides the added power I am looking for.