Suspend Your Disbelief

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The Copernican Author: On Point of View, Ptolemaic Characters, and Useful Unknowing

Ptolemy was trying to describe a system that didn’t exist. His point of view, literally, was wrong. He wasn’t looking at the planets from a fixed center, but from a body that was itself circling the sun. Copernicus’ eventual understanding of this fact led swiftly to the discovery of several other beautiful truths, including those of Kepler, Brahe, and Newton – suggesting that where you stand has everything to do with what you can see. And that if you’re standing in the wrong place, or facing the wrong direction, you’re going to see a very strange, distorted view.

All of which is to say, point of view matters. It might be proposed that an author does well to be relatively Copernican, even if his characters start out almost entirely Ptolemaic. … The supreme example of a character remaining Ptolemaic within a Copernican story is Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog”. In this story, Chekhov knows nearly everything, and Anna knows, perhaps, only a little less – while the point of view character Gurov knows almost nothing of what goes on around him.