When I jump into writing a new novel or short story, I always begin with character profiles. I typically have the vaguest sense of what the plot will entail, and then craft the characters who will drive that plot and make its trajectory more concrete in my mind. But one thing I often forget to ponder is the perspective of my narrator. I’m not talking about point of view here, at least not in the sense of first person, second person, third person limited, or third person omniscient. I mean the question of who my narrator is, who they are talking to, and when they are telling this story.
I often write in third person, where the narrator’s perspective is not always relevant. However, in first person, perspective is vital. And writing from the perspective of a child is one of the hardest techniques to nail. All first-person narrators are biased in some way, but a child narrator is limited by inexperience and a lack of self-awareness. The younger the child, the harder a first-person POV is to write. Heck, even writing a child in third-person limited is difficult. You must still show the world through their eyes, keep them in the dark while making the reader aware, and reconnect with how children talk and take in their surroundings. Getting inside their head in first-person is incredibly complex because most people are unable to put themselves back in a child’s state of mind so completely.
So how did Harper Lee bring Scout Finch, who is five at the start of the story and only eight by the end, to life in To Kill a Mockingbird? How did she make teens and adults relate so strongly to that lovable little spitfire? How did she make her into a classic, instantly recognizable character? She mastered perspective.
What Is the Perspective?
From the very first page of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is clear five-year-old Scout is not doing the talking. Yes, this is first person, and yes, Scout is the speaker, but she is much older now. After a brief paragraph about Scout’s brother, Jem, breaking his arm when he was almost thirteen, we get this sentiment:
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to this accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out (Lee, 1).
While Lee never comes out and says that Scout is now well into adulthood when writing this story, there are many hints woven into this masterful paragraph. She’s not just sparking her reader’s curiosity about these disastrous events and about the identity of Boo Radley, she’s also grounding the reader firmly in the book’s perspective.
This discussion between her and Jem about what started things happens “when enough years had gone by” for the two to reflect. Reflection is not something children do well. Children are fully present. They live in the moment. Scout and Jem were at least broaching adulthood when this discussion took place. But we are even farther in time. Scout is clearly an adult, and has been for some time. How do we know? Well, we get “I maintain” which is present, so the current Scout still holds the opinion that the Ewells started everything, but then when Jem’s perspective is mentioned, past tense is used: “He said,” not “He says.”
The phrase “Jem, who was four years my senior,” even suggests that Jem might have passed away in the interim. She starts the sentence with a present-tense verb, but uses the past tense in reference to Jem here, rather than saying “Jem, who is four years my senior.”
It’s not important that we know exactly how old Scout is now; what’s important is that we know she is much older and is now reflecting back on what took place when she was a little girl.
How Does It Benefit Character?
As in all great books, most of the characterization in To Kill a Mockingbird comes from the words and actions of the characters themselves. However, sometimes, to dig deep into a character’s psyche, uncover things they do not recognize in themselves, or to save time and keep the plot moving forward at the correct pace, exposition is needed to describe certain aspects of character.
Scout, as the narrator, could not provide this exposition if she was telling this story as a child. There are things she would not know or be interested in. There are things she would not be able to put into words.
Take her description of her Aunt Alexandra:
To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had a river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn (129).
This description not only tells us a whole lot about Alexandra’s upbringing and state of mind in a short space, it also contains a biting critical undertone that a child’s voice could never convey. For example, placing the description of her as “objective” right before divulging that she’s “an incurable gossip” in order to show that Alexandra is not as upright and fair as she prefers to think. This description also holds a tone of reflection on the past that would not be there if the narrator was in the present of the story, even if she wasn’t a child.
Narrating the story through the lens of Scout’s older self also allows her to make observations about her own motivations and decisions.
As Jem nears his teen years, he begins to try and emulate adult behavior. He tries to be responsible, level-headed, and unafraid, but this new behavior utterly perplexes the young Scout. It angers her because she has no concept of that feeling, of wanting to be older, of hitting puberty and feeling both confused and yet somehow still assured of your own rightness. When Aunt Alexandra and Scout’s father, Atticus, get into an argument over Scout asking to go to their black housekeeper, Calpurnia’s house, Jem tries to bestow his newfound “grownup” wisdom on her, and the following exchange ensues:
“Scout, try not to antagonize Aunty, hear?”
Atticus’s remarks were still rankling, which made me miss the request in Jem’s question. My feathers rose again. “You tryin’ to tell me what to do?” (137)
This exchange of miscommunication continues until it explodes into a full blown fist fight (prefaced by one of Scout’s most hilarious lines in the book: “You damn morphodite, I’ll kill you!”). The young Scout has misread Jem’s tone and is blind to his motivations in asking her to not to backtalk Aunt Alexandra. The older Scout, looking back, both understands Jem’s tone and why she herself didn’t recognize it.
The perspective of the older Scout is only revealed in two short sentences here, but lines like this are scattered throughout the book, and they always work to highlight goings on beneath the surface of the characters’ actions and words.
How Does It Benefit Theme?
There are a number of themes in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the most prominent in my mind is that prejudice is taught (not to mention senseless). It asks the question, “What are we turning our children into?” It does this, in many ways, by forcing the reader to ask, “Why are Jem and Scout different? Why do they understand more than the other children? Why do they feel more compassion than most of the adults in the story?” The short answer: Atticus. He has raised them differently.
In many ways, like any good author, Lee conveys this theme through “showing.” It’s in Jem’s outbursts of misdirected rage every time the courthouse where Tom Robinson was falsely convicted is brought up, and in his broodiness. It’s in Scout’s questions to Atticus and Jem about hate and the hypocrisy of despising Hitler and his methods while being so ugly to people at home. It’s in Dill’s sudden tears at the courthouse after seeing the way the prosecutor treats Tom Robinson on the stand—the tears his young mind (and Scout’s) cannot yet make total sense of.
But the elder Scout is able to reflect on things further. She understands Dill’s tears now. And in her reflections of the events surrounding the Robinson-Ewell case, we are given deeper insight that drives the theme home.
Take these lines for example:
The adults in Maycomb never discussed the case with Jem and me; it seemed that they discussed it with their children, and their attitude must have been that neither of us could help having Atticus for a parent, so their children must be nice to us in spite of him. The children would never have thought that up for themselves: had our classmates been left to their own devices, Jem and I would have had several swift, satisfying fist-fights apiece and ended the matter for good (243).
The underlying ideas in that short passage are two-fold. The obvious nod to the theme is “The children would never have thought that up for themselves.” But there is something even more frightening within these lines. Even if their parents hadn’t told them to be nice to Jem and Scout, the school children would have picked fights with them. Why? The children have picked up on their parents’ distaste for Atticus’ defense of a black man. Do they understand why this makes their parents angry? Probably not, except on the slimmest of surface levels. They certainly don’t understand the real reason—the blind fear of “other,” of difference, and the ingrained hatred bestowed upon them by their own parents. But the children have absorbed that anger nonetheless. The elder Scout recognizes that. She also recognizes that the children would have taken out that blind rage in a simple (if somewhat primitive) way and then forgotten it, but instead their parents have taught them a new strategy. They’ve taught them to whisper behind backs. They’ve taught them how to present the veneer of civility to feel better about yourself and the ugly thoughts banging around in your brain. To harbor the hatred in your heart and outwardly smile and say, “Bless your heart.”
Consider Perspective in Your Writing
You can write your story through any lens. Lee chose the perspective of an elder version of her main character so that she could show the affects of prejudice on children without being bound to the limitations of writing from a child’s perspective. You can choose a neutral, all-seeing narrator or let readers view your story through your protagonists eyes in the moment. The options are nearly limitless. Just make sure you take the time to consider perspective and select a lens that will do your story the most justice.
Works Cited: Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Warner Books: New York, 1982.