Saturday, March 13, 2010

Undermining Our Protagonist’s Perspective

Chloe and I have coffee This is a meme that’s made the rounds but I thought it made a good point about character perspective—and maybe getting another character’s second opinion on our protagonist’s point of view.

In an amazing feat of synchronicity, Elspeth Antonelli ran the exact meme on her own excellent blog yesterday, so I'll link to her here.

I’m editing this for space, but you can see the entire Dog Diary vs. Cat Diary here.

The Dog's Diary

8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing! 9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing! 9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing! 10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing! 12:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing! 1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!

The Cat's Diary

Day 983 of My Captivity

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength.

The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet. Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates my capabilities. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a "good little hunter" I am. Bast**ds!


I don’t know about you, but when I read I usually tend to identify with the story’s protagonist. That can be pretty hard to do—authors sometimes make protagonists intentionally unlikeable.

But usually, I’m the #1 fan/buddy of whatever protagonist I’m currently reading. I’ve even read books where I’m on pins and needles worrying whether a criminal protagonist is going to escape from the authorities.

One of my favorite techniques is when an author pulls the rug out from under me. I can have so much tunnel vision as a reader that I’ll get totally sold on the protagonist’s perceptions and perspectives. The way they see the world of their novel is the way I do, too.

When an author suddenly throws a scene at me where the protagonist’s views are challenged or even derided by another character? I’m totally thrown. It’s like I’ve been seeing life through the dog’s eyes and now I’m introduced to the cat’s point of view.

Whom do I believe? The protagonist is my friend! I’ve been looking at the novel’s world through his eyes the whole time. Does he have poor judgment? Can I trust his opinions and perceptions?

What’s the purpose of the technique? To add some complexity, uncertainty, and a degree of conflict to a story.

Have you ever used an unreliable narrator or protagonist?