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On the Choice of Points of View

Persephone

Mishima Themboy
Pronouns
they/them
I really enjoyed this article and think its subject is super important when it comes to writing narrative alternate history that most people don't often consider. When it comes to my own writing, I have a tendency to gravitate towards using POVs showing the perspective of the marginalized and those on the fringes of society, and that's in large part because of my own status/experiences as a marginalized person. I'm having a hard time articulating my feelings/thoughts about how important it is to have good representation in alternate history and how the choice of POV plays a role in that, but this really is a stellar article.
 

Time Enough

"Enthusiastic Cis Male Partner"
Pronouns
He/Him
Writing a story about normal political activists from marginalised communities trying to do the impossible I’ve found has been more interesting and rewarding to write than Bryan Gould swanning around and being the smug, big I am.

I think a problem with Politicians anyway, is that there quite alien to write and the difficulty of knowing the ins and outs entirely can mount up.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
In this very insightful article, one sentence in particular seems to me particularly thought-provoking:
Alternate historians, as a community, tend male, white, and middle-to-upper-class. People with at least one of those attributes are at serious risk of seeing politics as nothing more than a hobby where teams win and lose according to arcane rules
I think it behooves us as a community to take more proactive measures to open ourselves to a less rarefied subset of humanity than mostly white middle-to-upper-class dudes. Otherwise we're likely to remain stuck with this idea that (alternate) history is about the power games of the few, and everyone else is just there for atmosphere.

One thing that has long made me uncomfortable with AH is how much of it skews in favor of imperialism in general, and Western hegemony in particular. Comparatively little thought is given to the people on the wrong side of the proverbial Gatling gun.
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Published by SLP
Location
Nu Yawk
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This is one of those things to me that, like conventional WW3s (very weird analogy, I know), is over-represented in online alternate history yet not everywhere else. Even if only in an ideal, most other fiction does try (even if it doesn't succeed) to make relatable characters. Turtledove frequently makes low-level people as his viewpoint characters, as do a lot of other "AH as a setting" works. Even Team Yankee, one of the most star-spangled WW3 novels, devotes some room to the main character's powerless wife.

For a lot of internet alternate history, I think political background (which I'm not denying could be a part) comes second to just a misshapen experience. If your main (if not only) sources/inspirations are Paradox games where there's just a list of important political figures and vignettes or other TLs with the same structure, then that's what you're following. That it's significantly easier to write doesn't "hurt" either.
 

Thande

Directly Elected Mayor of the Western Hemisphere
Published by SLP
This is one of those things to me that, like conventional WW3s (very weird analogy, I know), is over-represented in online alternate history yet not everywhere else. Even if only in an ideal, most other fiction does try (even if it doesn't succeed) to make relatable characters. Turtledove frequently makes low-level people as his viewpoint characters, as do a lot of other "AH as a setting" works. Even Team Yankee, one of the most star-spangled WW3 novels, devotes some room to the main character's powerless wife.

For a lot of internet alternate history, I think political background (which I'm not denying could be a part) comes second to just a misshapen experience. If your main (if not only) sources/inspirations are Paradox games where there's just a list of important political figures and vignettes or other TLs with the same structure, then that's what you're following. That it's significantly easier to write doesn't "hurt" either.
I think one reason for this, which I noticed writing LTTW volume VI (which is an homage to Turtledove's style) is that if you don't see things at a high political level much, then you don't have to explain the broader course of a war. If your ordinary grunt in a trench only sees his immediate part of the front and hears garbled reports of what's happening elsewhere, you don't have to worry about people saying "but the Ottoman Empire would never declare war over that!"
 
In this very insightful article, one sentence in particular seems to me particularly thought-provoking:

I think it behooves us as a community to take more proactive measures to open ourselves to a less rarefied subset of humanity than mostly white middle-to-upper-class dudes. Otherwise we're likely to remain stuck with this idea that (alternate) history is about the power games of the few, and everyone else is just there for atmosphere.

One thing that has long made me uncomfortable with AH is how much of it skews in favor of imperialism in general, and Western hegemony in particular. Comparatively little thought is given to the people on the wrong side of the proverbial Gatling gun.
The line you quote certainly seems to nail down why we encounter so many "horse race" political TLs.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
If your ordinary grunt in a trench only sees his immediate part of the front and hears garbled reports of what's happening elsewhere, you don't have to worry about people saying "but the Ottoman Empire would never declare war over that!"
This specific kind of perspective is what in French we call "Fabrice à Waterloo", after a famous passage from Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. It's the idea that the grunt in the midst of the actual fighting has a narrow view of what's going on, and a very different one from that of the historian analyzing the event with the benefit of hindsight and access to multiple sources. It's certainly useful for an AH writer in that they can dispense with omniscient narration and just go for a raw action-based sequence.
 

Redolegna

Champagne Socialist
Moderator
Published by SLP
Location
Paris
Pronouns
he/him
This specific kind of perspective is what in French we call "Fabrice à Waterloo", after a famous passage from Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. It's the idea that the grunt in the midst of the actual fighting has a narrow view of what's going on, and a very different one from that of the historian analyzing the event with the benefit of hindsight and access to multiple sources. It's certainly useful for an AH writer in that they can dispense with omniscient narration and just go for a raw action-based sequence.
Beautifully written passage, since Stendhal had style.

And that's it.

It's massive, complete bullshit and enormously influenced French writers about war for about a century even though Stendhal set foot near a battlefield all of once. Fabrice is the alter ego he aspires to be (which tells you how much of a shitty individual Stendhal is) and a complete moron who doesn't even grasp he has been in battle. Anyway, other writers believed it actually depicted the viewpoint of soldiers. It doesn't. Fabrice isn't a soldier, he's a dilettante of the worst kind. Fabrice doesn't understand what he sees because Stendhal didn't understand what he saw. How could he? He had no training and hated anything to do with military life. Even so, the soldiers and the camp followers who surround Fabrice know perfectly what they've been through, thank you very much. But neither Stendhal nor the people who read him put any stock in what they thought, so under the rug they went, until a whole generation of them was put through the wringer a century later and wrote about it and showed that Fabrice and Stendhal are the unusual ones. The kind who managed to say this of the Russian campaign in which he managed to not see battles (quite the feat) and clapped at the view of cities burning : "Voilà la triste condition qui a gâté pour moi la campagne de Russie : c’est de l’avoir faite avec des gens qui auraient rapetissé le Colisée et la mer de Naples."
 

SpanishSpy

Well-known member
For a lot of internet alternate history, I think political background (which I'm not denying could be a part) comes second to just a misshapen experience. If your main (if not only) sources/inspirations are Paradox games where there's just a list of important political figures and vignettes or other TLs with the same structure, then that's what you're following. That it's significantly easier to write doesn't "hurt" either.
I think that that sort of way of practicing alternate history is the natural result of a worldview that thinks of history as something that happens to other people. It's an abstraction that can be seen as a luxury.
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Published by SLP
Location
Nu Yawk
Pronouns
He/Him
Having upper-class characters reminds me of legendary military author W.E.B Griffin's blunt admission that he did a lot of them because to him "Rich people are more interesting than poor people."

(Although overall, most cheap thriller protagonists vary widely in means, and the ones that do have access to vast resources have a story justification for it in that it allows for bigger-scope, higher-powered stories)
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
the ones that do have access to vast resources have a story justification for it in that it allows for bigger-scope, higher-powered stories
Ah yes. "Why are so many heroes super-rich or part of a military-industrial superorganisation these days, is it secretly politics?" No, it's so they have all their cool stuff and can go places and you don't have to wonder how they're getting paid, same reason John Creasey wrote The Toff who was a toff and The Baron who was a baron. (Unless you want to write a story and character who does have to worry about getting paid even as they take jobs that don't pay well)
 

David Flin

Real people take priority over imaginary people
Having upper-class characters reminds me of legendary military author W.E.B Griffin's blunt admission that he did a lot of them because to him "Rich people are more interesting than poor people."
Yeah. He's talking complete cobblers, of course.

Poor people have more constraints on them, certainly. In my view, that makes them more interesting precisely because they have greater obstacles to overcome.

What he means is that it is easier to write characters who are rich people rather than poor people because rich people can avoid all those problems and obstacles that a lack of resources bring with them.

But then, having been what might be described as a poor person when I joined the military, I would say that, wouldn't I.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
Poor people have more constraints on them, certainly. In my view, that makes them more interesting precisely because they have greater obstacles to overcome.
Now the challenge, when one is writing about people from a different class/race/etc., is to make sure to do one's homework beforehand, and preferably to run it by people from the group in question for any bloopers. I didn't see the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, nor in fact have I read the book since by all accounts J.D. Vance has a dodgy ideological axe to grind, but I read in the reviews that its depiction of poverty is wildly off the mark.

Then, as cishet white males from a dominant culture, people like you and I have to be aware that featuring POCs as protagonists comes with its own potential pitfalls, so it's a narrow road to navigate between erasure and appropriation.
 

David Flin

Real people take priority over imaginary people
Then, as cishet white males from a dominant culture, people like you and I have to be aware that featuring POCs as protagonists comes with its own potential pitfalls, so it's a narrow road to navigate between erasure and appropriation.
For what it's worth, I'm mixed race. One of my grandmothers was Jamaican.

Now the challenge, when one is writing about people from a different class/race/etc., is to make sure to do one's homework beforehand, and preferably to run it by people from the group in question for any bloopers. I didn't see the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, nor in fact have I read the book since by all accounts J.D. Vance has a dodgy ideological axe to grind, but I read in the reviews that its depiction of poverty is wildly off the mark.
And, for the record, my childhood and young adulthood was that of poverty.
 

Kato

tired
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Birmingham
Pronouns
she/her
Brilliant article. I have the distinct impression that people across more fields than our own would benefit from the last paragraph, and in particular the quote about "seeing politics as nothing more than a hobby where teams win and lose according to arcane rules". Not least people in actual politics.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
For what it's worth, I'm mixed race. One of my grandmothers was Jamaican.

And, for the record, my childhood and young adulthood was that of poverty.
I knew about your class background, which you brought up on a previous occasion, but not about your Jamaican grandmother until Gary told me.
 

David Flin

Real people take priority over imaginary people
I knew about your class background, which you brought up on a previous occasion, but not about your Jamaican grandmother until Gary told me.
No worries. It's an easy thing to miss in a forum where all one has is the typed word.

And, to be fair, unlike my late brother, apart from a tendency to tan easily, my being mixed race is not obvious on seeing me either. Consequently, people tend to react to me differently to how they did to my brother. Which was interesting, for a certain value of interesting.
 

Alexander Rooksmoor

Active member
Very stimulating article. I looked at this issue in my Thinking of Writing Alternate History? In that book I similarly encouraged authors to think about the perspectives they adopt and avoiding wheeling out hackneyed ones. There is a challenge remaining, however, which is one of agency. A soldier on the frontline or a person being kept as a slave or working in a factory can provide a very good view of the immediate impact of that situation. However, even if caught up in, say, an offensive or an uprising or a strike, they are largely only going to show the reader that immediate experience, i.e. on some metres or kilometres of the front at best, incidents on one plantation or in one factory. Beyond that, they end up in the same situation as Wallace's diplomat, they only hear about other developments, second hand and depending on the time period and its technology, perhaps days, weeks or months after it has happened.

There is an certainly an argument for having that more 'authentic' and 'immediate' viewpoint, but it would be wrong to feel that it somehow provides more about the AH scenario. Added to that, those in low ranks or the oppressed, often have no ability to get out from where they are and to see other perspectives on what is happening. This is why elites are favoured as the ones whose eyes we see through, because they have greater agency to engage with more of the scenario that we have spent so long in constructing. While we may adopt approaches which are more appropriate for the spectrum of readers, many AH book buyers are not accepting of such approaches.

I always remember a criticism of my novel Provision which features a middle class English family in Somerset in the Second World War. It features four characters - a mother who ends up investigating ration book fraud, her two sons - one a air navigator; one an army captain based in Northern Ireland, and her daughter, a Land Army member. The focus of the book was food shortages caused by the Shark Enigma cipher not being broken. These four characters, given their status were able to go into different areas and witness developments first hand which an operative in a factory would not have seen. Yet, even then the complaint was that I included 'too much' dialogue and personal stuff, the reviewer said: 'There is so much dialogue ... I find myself skipped 10's of pages to get to actual historical content.' Of course, the dialogue was actually showing the impact of the historical changes on people's lives.

In many ways I blame war fiction for much of this attitude. Much of it these days, no matter the time period, it goes for the Crusades as much as the Second World War, is largely about battle movements. In contrast to war fiction of the past which focused on soldiers, these days what sells well is often viewed from a much higher level and is almost like a non-fiction book on a conflict than fiction about characters. Readers brought up on this approach are then hostile when they come over into AH expecting much the same. They can find it, e.g. in the AH work of Peter Tsouras and seem to expect that that is the 'proper' approach to AH writing.

Another approach is to have multiple points of view and so have local, immediate perspectives from a range of places. I ended up doing this with 'Scavenged Days' as I realised that even with newspaper, radio and television reports I could not have one or two characters hearing about let alone witnessing what was going on, on the ground across various parts of France and in different circumstances. I think I ended up with 17 characters whose eyes we see through. However, I know many readers are hostile even if you have two points of view let alone multiple ones, so this again runs the risk of squeezing out the range of viewpoints that Wallace is advocating.

These days, perhaps more than ever, due to the power of social media and every-customer-is-a-reviewer dynamics we are hemmed in perhaps more now than 30 or 40 years ago, that is if you actually want to sell books rather than simply produce quality stories. That, of course, is a legitimate aspiration but it does not help with the bills. Thus, it is great that we are aspiring for what used to be called diverse 'subaltern' views in our stories. However, one challenge is that the reading audience is lagging a long way behind.
 
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