Relationship Between Reading and Writing

Relationship Between Reading and Writing

“E” is for… The omniscient reader

Reader? Isn’t it the writer who is supposed to be omniscient? Maybe, but there are times when you want to reader to feel omniscient. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of the multiple third person limited point of view. When you, the author, show different scenes as they are experienced by different characters the reader learns more about what is going on than the characters do.

So what’s the point?

Why would you want to create the omniscient feeling in the reader? Using a single viewpoint character, whether in first person or third person makes it very clear to the reader who to identify with. It is also more realistic. In ‘real life’ we have only our own senses and perceptions to rely on. Why should the reading experience be different?

Reading fiction is often a means to take a virtual vacation from the pressures of reality. The stay at home reader, bored with the same old places and routine dulled by daily repetition, is refreshed by the different view. The weary traveler, feeling isolated in one strange place after another, is soothed by familiarity. Both experience frustration in their lives when their plans or expectations are changed by factors of which they were unaware until they interfere. Even the limited omniscience they experience as readers is a welcome change.

With a single limited perspective, tightly focused on the perceptions and thoughts of one character, the reader still will notice and interpret differently than the character. It may take a greater skill at the craft by the writer to ‘plant’ the necessary clues to make things clear to the reader without provoking a Why doesn’t that idiot realize… reaction but that may be why so many first published books are single limited perspective. An editor who encounters a well done manuscript of this type can be reasonably confident that the writer knows the craft.

Controlling Distance

Writers do awful things to poor defenseless characters. Deliberately. We spend hours thinking about what the worst possible thing might be that can happen to our hapless hero. Or, as Lois McMaster Bujold writes in the Author’s Afterword to Cordelia’s Honor

“…the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?”. And then do it.”

After discarding the too extreme ideas, tossing the hero into a river to see if he can swim is one thing but populating the river with thousands of ravenous piranjas is likely to be literally overkill, (Pun intended. Sorry.) we carefully arrange for obvious solutions which will, at best, have consequences that will further harry our unfortunate flounderer. If the reader identifies too closely with the character this is likely to be disturbing. We need to establish some distance.

If we must have the piranjas there had better be a setup of a possible means of escape that the reader can see before the splash. The character is not obligated to use that particular means but it needs to be there. While this can be done in single perspective it still tends to be quite intimate. Using a second perspective to establish the possibilities creates more distance and less reader disturbance. This also reduces suspence of the What is going to happen? variety. For some stories this suspence is the key. In others, the How is whatever going to happen? is more important and getting the different perspectives can actually help increase the suspense.

Mastering the Craft

It is usually easier to see how a particular writing skill is applied in someone else’s work. Studying good writing we may need to re-read several times before we begin to catch on to the structure but the time is not wasted. For an excellent example of multiple perspective take a look at Chapter One of A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. You can find it online here. If you want a single perspective novel to compare you might try finding a copy of either Shards of Honor or the combined volume Cordelia’s Honor which adds Barrayar, a short story Aftermathsand the Author’s Afterword. Speaking as a writer, I found the four and a half pages of that Afterword were, by themselves, more than worth the price of the book.Happy Reading!

Margaret I. Carr