Elizabeth: Whose Story is It?

A group of male friends sitting together on a bench telling stories (iStock)

While in Scotland recently, I had the chance to see some beautiful scenery, walk through a castle or two, take a vast number of photographs, and learn a little about the country.  The wonderful guides on the two sightseeing tours I took with Rabbie’s Tours were especially helpful with that last part.

During a total of four days of touring, they kept up a steady flow of historical lore, political intrigue, facts, and figures, with a sprinkling of environmental impact and social justice thrown in for good measure.

The fact that they were dressed in kilts was just icing on the cake. 🙂

Along the way, both guides recounted the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the poor, persecuted Catholic queen who fled to her cousin Queen Elizabeth in England for help and instead was imprisoned for years and years, had her son turned against her, and was eventually executed.  Both the story told by the guides, as well as a version of the story heard a few days earlier during a tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, painted a very sympathetic and sad picture; a picture that differed quite a bit from the one that I had heard during a previous trip to England.  In that version, poor Mary was actively trying to seize the throne from Elizabeth, not just demurely looking for a little help from her distant family.

Though neither version of the story is likely to be completely accurate, I’m sure both have bits of truth to them, along with the obvious national biases of the story tellers.   Historical tales always include some bias, both from being told/written by the victors of various events and from generally coming from the male perspective.

Of course all stories are shaped by whoever is telling them.  If you ask 5 people to describe an event they all saw together, you will likely get 5 different accounts because we all see and/or remember those specific things that resonate with us, and things are always subject to interpretation, no matter how factual one tries to be.

Being human and fallible, we’re all a long way from the “fair witnesses” in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“A fair witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. A photographic memory is a prerequisite for the job.  A fair witness is an absolutely reputable source of information and a fair witness is an absolutely reputable source of information.” ~ Wikipedia

A fair witness would certainly be useful when refereeing sibling squabbles; how unfortunate that they’re still only fictional.

All this got me to thinking recently about how changing a POV character could completely change a story.

My Regency, for example, is told from the hero’s POV and it is his story, although the heroine’s POV gets (almost) equal time.  Since it is the hero’s story, it is a spy plot with a side order of “marriage of convenience.”  If I had decided to tell the story from the heroine Abigail’s point of view instead, it would have been a completely different story with more of a focus on how fragile a woman’s place in society was and how few choices were available for a suddenly orphaned young woman with no money and no relatives to take her in.   The story could have gone either way and I actually wrote two opening scenes – one from each perspective – before deciding whose story it was going to be.

I did the same “writing a scene from two different perspectives” at various other points in the story, when I was trying to figure out which perspective would have greater impact to the story.  I’ve even found it to be a helpful trick for moving forward when I’ve written myself into a corner or the story has started to bog down.  Of course the change of perspective can also be an effective vehicle for injecting biases, incomplete observances, and complications into the story.

So, have you ever started a story with one POV character and decided it actually belonged to another character or changed the POV for a scene in order to have a greater impact?

5 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Whose Story is It?

  1. Very interesting! I think “fair witnesses” are a lot like security cameras, in that they strip away one level of uncertainty. But you still have to rely on “fair listeners” — people who judge. And also, we can’t know what the witness/camera doesn’t see.

    A lot of my favorite fiction has heroes that could be villains. Aral Vorkosigan is a swoon-inducing, strong hero in Shards of Honor — but he could also be viewed as a jack-booted thug who has been banished to crap duty because of insubordination. All through the Vorkosigan series, the characters take strong stands — which also mean from a certain angle, they could be viewed as villains. Miles Vorkosigan pulls some really nasty tricks (and goes into a blue funk about a few of them) in his quest to be bigger and better.

    The book I’m working on right now is still in the discovery stage, and I don’t know who it belongs to. It might even belong to one of the pair who I think of as the “secondary couple”. I did write the opening scene from Olivia’s perspective, and a few months later, wrote it from Jack’s. It’s richer and better from Jack’s, but that might be a function of being a later draft. At any rate, I have more information to pick and choose from. (Killing my darlings, though, is going to be a real bitch with this story.)

    • Michaleine, that is a fine line between hero and villain. Characters that approach, but don’t cross that line feel richer and more developed than those who stay firmly in the “hero zone.”

      I’d love to read more of Olivia and Jack’s story, regardless of whose perspective it is from. Those two have been very engaging in the snippets you’ve revealed to us thus far.

  2. I always write the heroine’s story because I don’t think I understand men well enough to dig deep into their psyches. But I do write scenes from the hero’s POV, and sometimes I change that around if the scene feels flat or I think the drama could be enhanced if I gave it to the other character. Sometimes that’s a bust, too, and I just have to figure out what else is wrong.

    • Funny Kay. I’m sure I don’t understand men well enough either, but that doesn’t stop me from writing from the male perspective. Having grown up around males and worked in predominately male-dominated fields, it often feels easier to write than from a female-perspective. It helps that I’m writing the “male perspective” for females. If my projected audience was male, I’d be more hesitant to do so.

  3. It took me months of putzing with The Demon Always Wins to finally choose my protagonist. I really wanted a female protagonist–all my research indicated romance readers really favor that–but in the end, I went with male. This was because the book is written as magical realism and I felt the only way to set up the “magical” portion of that believably was to start with him.

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