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The Lesson of the Selfie; or The Power of Point of View

PoF3I managed to frustrate my editor very early on in my nascent career. He wanted a photo for publicity purposes. I didn’t want to shell out the hundred bucks for a professional, so I kept taking selfies. “What about this one?” I’d ask. “If you ignore that ketchup on my cheek, I think it looks pretty good. Or how about this one? You can crop out that stack of empty beer cans…”

I’ve taken a lot of photos in the last few years, thousands of photos, but they’ve all been photos of my son. Trying to snap a good selfie reminded me of something important, something I’d learned (as we all do) way back in grade school, but hadn’t really thought about for years: I don’t look the way I think I look.

When I take a picture of my son, I get exactly what I expect: a cute little kid with big blue eyes. In these selfies, however, the guy staring out from the screen didn’t look cute. He looked weird, squinty, maybe a little confused. Strange. I didn’t feel weird and confused.

Aside from the unsettling feeling that I was getting older, uglier, and weirder far more quickly than I’d planned, this was a good writing lesson, one that gets right to the heart of the power of point-of-view.

EmperorsBladesThe Emperor’s Blades has three point-of-view characters, all siblings, all geographically separated for almost the entire novel. My second book, The Providence of Fire, sees those siblings come face to face, and that’s where the Lesson of the Selfie comes in, a lesson that might go something like this: characters never look and act the way they think they look and act.

Kaden, for instance, doesn’t think of himself as particularly adept when it comes to his monastic training. He’s mastered some emotions, not others; he still feels young and volatile when compared to his mentors, the older monks. It’s only when we see him through Valyn’s eyes that we realize how far Kaden has travelled down the Shin path, how far removed he is from normal human emotion and experience. When Valyn looks at Kaden, he sees a young man “cold as midwinter ice, calm and ready.” The disjunction between the two perspectives – Kaden’s view of himself, and Valyn’s view of his brother – becomes a powerful narrative tool, one that tells us as much about the observer as the observed.

Readers often get in touch with me asking for chapters from the points-of-view of some of the books’ most deadly actors: the skullsworn assassin Pyrre, for instance, or the Kettral veteran, the Flea. My reluctance to include their points of view is based in large part on the Lesson of the Selfie. Right now we see those characters entirely from the outside, through the eyes of their younger, less experienced counterparts. Valyn’s awe when he looks at the Flea becomes our awe; we’re not offered any other vantage. The Flea, of course, feels no awe of himself. He spends more time dwelling on his limitations, his weaknesses and blind spots, his encroaching old age. To enter his head would be to complicate him for the reader, and also, inevitably, to diminish him. If this were his story, that complication and diminishment would be vital, but this is not his story.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours as I write this series thinking about character and the ways that character is revealed through dialogue and description, action and hesitation. The Lesson of the Selfie is a crucial reminder that all of these decisions, crucial as they are, are based on an earlier, even more foundational set of choices: those of the point-of-view itself.

And if you’re wondering, I finally coughed up the hundred bucks for an author photo. I really like the look of the dude who showed up in the final pictures… but I don’t recognize him at all. And I still think we could have cropped out the beer cans.

The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley
Released January 2015 (Out now!)

PoF2

The second novel in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, a gripping new epic fantasy series in the tradition of Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin.

* * *

The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace is search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar JARH says:

    A short, but interesting article. Thanks for sharing, Mr Staveley 🙂

  2. This is a really, really good thought.

  3. Avatar Adriano Pacheco says:

    Nice article. It was very interesting when I saw Valyn’s point of view of Kaden in the story. I really enjoyed readind Emperor’s Blades and now very excited por Providence of Fire. Congrats to the author. 😀

  4. Avatar John Kelly says:

    Best article I’ve read on F-F. I like the idea of using multiple POV to explore the “flawed narrator” concept and enrich the characters. I hadn’t thought of that. Multiple POV can also expose differences in the perceptions of “the facts”, as in Rashomon. Thanks for a very interesting article.

  5. […] The Lesson of the Selfie; or The Power of Point of View […]

  6. Avatar William Lewis says:

    Great article. One of the parts I liked best about The Emperor’s Blades was how you presented the Kettral as a nearly perfect, invincible fighting force; and then humanized them through the story of their training, as experienced by Valyn and his peers.

    I have had a similar experience with photographs of myself. While I have taken many self-portraits, most show me hurrying to get in position, getting angry with the camera, trying hard not to blink, etc. A professional took one of the few ‘good’ pictures of me, which shows me looking as I think I look, or at least, how I would like to appear. I’ve also taken many photos of other people, strangers. Some, maybe 30% are very skilled at posing for photographs. They immediately lock into position, almost like soldiers standing at attention, and they look good in the photo, but at the cost of not showing them as they move around and actually do things. Some others are truly happy (these photos were taken at the beach) and look into the camera as if looking at their friends and wishing to share their happiness with them. Which is exactly true. When someone looks into the camera for a photo, they are not looking at an optical/mechanical devise, or even at the photographer, but they are looking into the eyes of their friends and whoever else might view the image, across time and space.

  7. […] The Lesson of the Selfie; or The Power of Point of View […]

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