Viewpoint Is a Social Justice Issue

by | June 27, 2017 | General | 4 comments

by Jean Roberta

For the past few weeks, I’ve been revising, reorganizing, and overhauling an erotic novel I wrote in 1998. What was once contemporary is now historical, or at least nostalgic. None of the characters have cellphones, and they don’t hang out on FaceBook, so they usually communicate face-to-face. When traveling, they are unreachable.

I decided to keep the period flavour, but what I thought of at the time as an omniscient narrative voice now looks like a dizzying road trip through too many heads that are not all in the same place at the same time.

The biggest challenge of the rewrite is the need to focus more consistently on one consciousness throughout most of the plot. I gave myself permission to devote a few chapters to the viewpoints of two important secondary characters, but since the story is really an erotic romance as well as a queer coming-of-age story, it needs to focus on the central character.

Viewpoint is never a side-issue in fiction. For every plot (a series of events based on a process of cause and effect), there seems to be an ideal narrator to tell it, or an ideal pair of eyes through which to view the world in which the story takes place. At the same time, focusing on one consciousness means excluding all others, except by hinting at other characters’ internal reality through action and dialogue.

Viewpoint can be a scary thing. Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories get much of their effect from the voices of narrators who reveal themselves to be irrational and out of touch with reality. Narcissists, while able to function in the world, do a horrible job of impersonating other people. For example, in one episode of the sit-com The Big Bang Theory, the chief science nerd Sheldon Cooper decides that he needs to learn how to act. He approaches his neighbour Penny, a struggling actor, for help. She tells him to improvise a speech, which he converts into a play about himself as a misunderstood genius. At one point, he pretends to be his actual mother, and says, “I’m just an ignorant Bible-thumping woman from Texas. I can’t understand scientific reality.”

Some of the worst stories I’ve ever read include equally unconvincing confessions, often written by male authors and put into the mouths of female characters. “Exotic” accents and “ethnic” humour can be equally cringe-worthy.

Attempting an “omniscient” voice, I hoped, would at least enable different streams of consciousness to balance and comment on each other. In real life, everyone involved in a situation has a viewpoint, and a truly omniscient (all-knowing) perspective doesn’t exist.

As I delete whole passages of head-hopping, I regret having to “murder my darlings.” Some of those unspoken thoughts can’t be rewritten as dialogue, since there are reasons why the characters didn’t speak them aloud in the first place.

Fiction would be boring if every writer stuck to first-person autobiography. Writing about characters who are very different from oneself is one of the joys of the game, yet we all do it at our own risk.

If John and Mary have a conversation in a story I’m writing, I want the reader to get a sense of both viewpoints. If John is the narrator, is Mary being shrunk to a relatively minor character? If Mary is the narrator, is she fairer to John than he would be to her? Do they need a witness, a cooler and more detached head, to tell their story? In that case, what happens to the passion that keeps a reader involved?

In reality, being able to hear the thoughts of every passer-by would produce cacophony in one’s own head. We would all want to turn off that magical power. As a writer and a reader, I like coherence, and therefore I strive to resist head-hopping. It’s a struggle.

Comments welcome.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Belinda LaPage

    I know what you mean, Jean. Omniscient and head-hopping are not the same. I think omniscient only works with ONE all-knowing (God like) viewpoint.

    The head-hopping introduces multiple viewpoints, which makes it harder for the reader to immerse.

    It sounds frustrating for you, but there must be some satisfaction in knowing that your literary eye and ear has improved over the years.

    • sam thorne

      I’ve heard it said that head-hopping is accidental omniscience where singular third-person narrative is intended. The omniscient narrator doesn’t head-hop; he dips, plunges and glides into various psyches. There’s so much confusion mired around this point that it’s possibly the best explanation I’ve heard yet of the distinction.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    You are certainly right; decisions about narrative point of view can have huge ramifications on the story. I’m not sure that it’s possible to have “social justice” in fiction, though, in the sense of giving every important character some time on the podium. In most novels, that would dilute the impact.

    I have several novels written in the first person present, alternating chapters between narrators. The most recent, and the most successful from a craft perspective, is The Gazillionaire and the Virgin. In that case, the alternation seemed natural most of the time, since it’s the story of a developing relationship. Occasionally, though, this structural constraint I’d chosen ended up influencing the story. For instance, if it was time for Rachel’s chapter, I had to have plot events that she knew about.

    I’d find it terribly difficult to do the sort of major revisions you’re engaged in. However, I am really looking forward to the result.

  3. Sam thorne

    I hear you on the difficulties with sustaining cohesiveness in the ‘omniscient’ voice. Some time back I tried writing a story set in the Victorian period, where the omniscient voice was the primary means of telling a story, but I kept getting twitchy and reverted back to alternating single perspectives. But each ‘voice’ is indeed going to show a total different social perspective. Mrs Delaney, of Half-Moon Crescent, might be very exercised over her husband’s choice of chaperone for their daughter for the night, but this will be a first world non-problem for the women on the streets, for whom the chief contribution to their calorie count is gin.

    Great article, well-considered! Thank you for sharing (and for persisting with the vagaries of WordPress to do so!!)

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