I mentioned recently that I was reading Angels in the Darkness by Lisa Farringer Parker, and I can now say with some disappointment that I have finished it. I wish the story could have gone on longer so I didn’t have to leave it so soon. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable and riveting. I’ll post an official review on GoodReads later, but for now, I’d like to use the book to examine the use of perspective in fiction.
The protagonist of Angels in the Darkness is Jutta Bolle, the daughter of a prominent Germany family in Berlin. She was born a few years before the Nazis rose to power, and the book follows her experiences under Nazi oppression, through World War II, and into the postwar years where fear of the Russians became commonplace. Jutta’s perspective of this period of history is what gives the book its power.
Let’s take a closer look at Jutta as the lens through which this time period is revealed going from broad to narrow. Put aside for the moment that Angels in the Darkness is a true story and not simply a fictional tale that would allow an author to invent any protagonist he wished. In actuality, the perspective of the viewpoint character is equally important in books based on true stories or purely invented.
-- First, Jutta is German during a time when Germany is considered the villain. This instantly creates a perspective contrary to what’s normally expected. Most books focus on the heroic side of a conflict when it comes to selecting characters. The advantage to a protagonist on the “wrong side” is that it instantly creates conflict. Jutta is one of the group subjugating others, yet she is the hero.
-- Beyond being a German, Jutta is a child for most of the story. A child’s perspective adds a unique twist, especially in a situation dominated by adults and involving events most children would struggle to grasp. However, as Jutta’s child’s perspective allows her to retain some innocence, even as her country falls to darkness, it helps keep her heroic and encourages reader sympathy.
-- Next, Jutta is a girl. In some cases, particularly modern ones, this may not seem that significant. However, in 1930s and ‘40s Germany, it’s a very important distinction. It means that Jutta is not trained for war from an early age like her male peers. It means that we are able to see the daily struggles in Germany rather than turning to the battlefields. Expectations for German girls during the period were quite different from German boys.
-- Zooming in even closer, we see that Jutta is the daughter of unique parents. Her specific family means that, at least at first, she has wealth. Her house is in a high class neighborhood, and some of her neighbors are high ranked members of the Nazi Party. However, her parents despise the Nazis and Hitler. Despite the risk, her mother plays banned music on her piano. When Jews start disappearing, her mother helps a friend who is Jewish to escape the country before it’s too late. Her parents go out of their way to avoid Jutta being forced to take part in the Hitler Youth. And perhaps most significantly, her parents speak openly within their own house about Hitler and how he’s destroying their country, about the wrongs committed, and about how they cannot stand it. This means that, from a young age, Jutta had a good foundation from which to see through the Nazi propaganda.
-- Lastly, Jutta loves America. She chooses to learn English in school. She reads American novels, at least the ones she can sneak past her mother’s notice. She enjoyed waving to American Olympians as they drove past her neighborhood when the Olympics came to Berlin. Her love of America puts her at odds with many of her countrymen.
So let’s put all that together. Jutta Bolle, the protagonist of Angels in the Darkness, is a German during World War II, a child, a girl, the daughter of anti-Nazi parents, and a lover of America. All that together gives the story a unique and captivating lens. And that’s just scratching the surface. There are tons of stories about World War II Germany, but what makes each interesting is their unique perspective.
Now, apply that to any other genre of fiction or time period. One of the biggest elements that makes a story interesting is the unique perspective of its characters, especially the protagonist. There are tons of fantasy stories involving kings. What makes this one unique? There are oodles of mysteries involving a detective. Why is this detective captivating to read about? There are countless romances involving Scotsmen. What makes this particular Scotsman distinct from his peers?
As you can see, perspective is essential to creating unique and interesting stories. What makes the protagonist in your story special? Look layer by layer into the character’s life to identify that special quality. What is his social standing? Where does she live? Who is his family? What is her political perspective? What is his personality? What unique traditions did she inherit from her family? This list goes on and on.
Everything about a person’s life modifies their perspective. In the case of a character in a book, everything in that character’s background and current existence composes the perspective through which a reader will enjoy a story. An author doesn’t need to tell the reader all of it, nor should he, but those elements should influence how the viewpoint character relates a particular tale to the audience.
What about you? What other qualities or dimensions help define a protagonist’s, or any other character’s, unique perspective?
Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and more writing tips.