The Unattainable Point of View

By David L. Robbins | February 15th, 2015

Novelist David L. Robbins's columnist from the Feb.-March 2015 issue.

I’m a professional writer. I teach writing. As such, I think about stories all the time. How to, what to, when to, who to, why to tell stories.

There are many pillars to good story-telling. Urgency and tension make the pages turn. Surprises can be fun, joined with compelling characters, exotic settings, poetic and evocative language. Humor works wonders, tragedy and heartbreak leave their mark, fear can rock a world.

The very best told stories have one characteristic in common: empathy, the magical quality that brings the reader/listener/viewer into the tale itself. No writer can tell a powerful story without deeply knowing his characters. Once that’s done, he deploys a technique called Point of View, or POV. You’re put into the skin of one character, you share her dangers and passions, experience the storyworld through her senses with all her memories and motivations. You identify.


So, I’ll cut right to my point. With all my years of storytelling study and practice, I’m having a hard time identifying with much of the world these days.

Like, what is Putin thinking? I simply can’t see through the lens of his logic. It’s inconceivable that he’ll get away with stealing more of Ukraine. If he keeps at it, he’ll start a war or starve and ruin his own people. I couldn’t make a character of Putin. I get that his motivation is to restore the old Soviet regime; but he must know he’ll never do it. Why slog on, causing such pain and tumult? He defies my ability to fathom.

I can’t get a handle on what today’s young black men are going through. I say I can, because I want to, but I’m lying. I don’t understand. They believe the worst about the police. They’re angry at authority. Though I can intellectualize and sympathize, I can’t empathize. Two of the smartest people I know are African-American mothers of boys. They aren’t given to conspiracy theories or knee-jerk reactions and they’re genuinely frightened for their boys. I can’t imagine. But I trust them, so I know something must change.

I’m at a loss when I hear global warming isn’t good science. I seriously don’t understand what experiences would go into a character to make him, in the face of mountainous evidence and potentially dire consequences, ignore the obvious planetary peril and instead talk about loss of jobs. I could make up a monster, a murderer, a missing mime, a myopic mechanic, a moron, a mystic, a mesmerizing melodramatic madam before I could invent a climate change denier. Again, I’m simply clueless as to how they arrive at the conclusion that this will all go away on its own, it’s just cyclical. But, um, what if it’s not?

I’ve no POV at all on Muslim extremists.

I understand they want a caliphate, their own sandbox to replay the 14th century. Subjugate women, establish Sharia law, worship a virulent brand of Islam; all this makes its own sort of gnarled sense. I don’t approve, but I get it. We could all write that nut job. But beheading people on camera, murdering children, kidnapping schoolgirls? You lost me. How are these acts indicative of a model of worship better than anything, anything, the rest of us espouse, or do not? I have no insights, total blank canvas. Every morning I stare at my newspaper dumbstruck. If I tried to write convincingly of a character who for any reason could harm a child for the sake of God, I’d be exposed as a fraud. (By the way, God told Abraham to kill Isaac, then told him not to freaking do it.)


Writing teachers back on the trope, “Write what you know.” I’ve always disagreed, arguing we should write what we learn. Knowledge is more fascinating, fresher than memory. But I could be wrong. I’m taking a hard, honest look at my abilities to depict this world and the actors in it. Too much that is commonplace strikes me as extraordinary. I’m more comfortable with what I know of the 20th century. All too often, what I’m learning about the 21st exceeds my talents, and my imagination.

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