Thursday, April 22, 2010

Filtering and Point of View

I love this old Larson cartoon. Here is a guy expending a lot of energy lecturing his dog--and by the time the dog hears it, it is only "blah, blah, blah, Ginger."

But it got me thinking--which can be a dangerous thing--that we all filter the world. Two people never see or hear the same thing. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. We see and hear only part of what is going on, and that is filtered through our experiences, expectations, and even our prejudices. No two people perceive the same reality, and that can lead to conflict. Conflict in real life is not so hot; conflict in fiction is golden.

And the filter of the POV character should come across in the narration and description. One of the best examples that I've seen in mystery was from Wilkie Collins The Moonstone. Collins told the story of a missing gem through three first-person narrators, each having a very different POV which created a slant on their story. The first was an old rambling servant, loyal to a fault. He could see no possibility of wrong in the family. The second narrator was a distant relative, a religious zealot. She did see wrong in the family, and set out to convert them. The third was a young man who was in love with the daughter. With each narrator, you got a different view of the major characters, depending on the particular filter.

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

Sometimes we think of POV as simply 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, limited or omniscient, but it is so much more than that. Does one character love rural life, while the other adores the city? You might end up with a Green Acres scenario, where two people living in the same place see radically different things. One sees dirt as a symbol of living independently, returning to a simpler life. While the other sees it as--dirt.

The description of the physical environment is often dependent on the filter used by the POV character. And sometimes by his or her mood.

Is there a beautiful sunset? Or is night rapidly approaching?

Are children playing gleefully nearby? Or are snotty-nosed brats breaking his concentration?

Are pure white snowflakes gently falling? Or are the frigid streets treacherous and lined with slush?

Is the proverbial cup half empty or half full--and is that a good or bad thing?

David Swift, director and writer of the Disney film Pollyanna, placed this phrase on her locket: "When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will." (fictionally attributed to Abraham Lincoln) That film contrasted the jaded filters of adults with the youthful, idealistic and 'glad' POV of Pollyanna, creating continual conflict by the differences.

Time to dust off that WIP, jump deep into the POV character's head, and try to see the world through his eyes... and see if we can't generate a little conflict because of the differences.


  1. Nice article. It seems to be more on perspective, but that works for writing anyway. Happy to see another post in here.

  2. Yes, very similar to perspective. I was thinking light filters--almost like looking at the world through rose-colored glasses--or other shades. While perspective might be based on where we are standing--literally or figuratively--filtering seems more of an unconscious choice of what not to see or hear.