Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences by Madelyn Lemons, is a story from Periphery 55. It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.
A question I hear a lot about perspective in storytelling is, ‘when should an author choose the first-person perspective versus a third-person perspective?’ The best answer I can give is the story Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences from Perphery 55 by Madelyn Lemons. Lemons’ story relies heavily on character narration. The main character Jim’s internal monologue not only sets the scene, works to characterize every character we meet in the story, but is damn funny the entire time. Few stories we receive at Periphery are so effortlessly comedic, but more importantly, use that comedy for a very specific purpose.
Take a look at the opening paragraph of the story. Notice all that it does simply using character voice. How would this scene have been different if it was narrated in the third person?
Be an octopus research scientist you said. It would be fun, you said. No no, they can’t steal things. Absolutely not. They don’t memorize night guard patterns and steal fish from other exhibits. They don’t open their tanks, slip their grubby tentacles out, reach into your candy drawer, and steal your Almond Joy. Not them. Dumb fish, yes they are.
Everything you need to know about the entire story you get from the opening paragraph, and all of it comes directly from the character’s voice. It is Jim’s opinions about Lenny’s actions that matter here. Lemons could have easily told us about how Lenny has escaped in the past and Jimi is made about having to find him. A flat description here would have worked well enough. By seeing those events through Jim’s eyes, however, the reader understands so much more about both the events and Jim as a character. The reader knows that the protagonist is an Octopus research scientist who is bitter about their job and sardonic to a fault. The reader knows the antagonist is a clever octopus who’s exploits not only show how intelligent he is, building up a persona and background for the story itself, but also are able to deeply characterize Jim, and show his crass nature. Only by seeing the world through Jim’s eyes is so much content able to be put into simple descriptions.
Another great example of how Lemons is able to use descriptions to deeply characterize Jim is how she describes ‘Bill’: “I’m pretty sure his name isn’t actually “Bill the orange fish man” or even “Bill” at all, but I’ve never actually talked to him” Like Jim, the reader still knows nothing about Bill, but hears all that Jim thinks about him. The comments about Bill’s outfit, the mocking nickname, work to push the story forward while at the same time working to characterize both men. These comments show the reader how judgmental Jim is in a much more powerful way than if Lemons were to simply tell us.
Lemons never has to say that Jim is judgmental, or angry, or well versed in octopi because the reader is able to understand that simply through the work Jim’s point of view does. The odd phrases like “ugly yellow linoleum” or “I know his pissy eyes when I see them” show how bitter Jim is about his job, surroundings, and having to find Lenny. Comments like “Octopus vulgaris” and “he’s a cephalopod without the ability to even perceive sound the way humans do” show how much Jim knows about taxonomy and octopi without Lemons having to spend time telling the reader these things. Through character voice, Lemons is able to be incredibly efficient with her prose, having each line pull a lot of weight and tell the reader many things. A telling aspect of the story is that the first time Jim speaks is six pages into the story. We don’t hear a word from his mouth and yet we know so much about him. By the time he does speak, his actions and motivations are clear to the reader.
So far I have glossed over just how funny Jim’s narration is, and I don’t that that is fair when talking about all that Jim’s perspective is and does. The line, “Oh no, bad idea don’t do it danger zone he’ll eat you Jesus Christ Lenny’s one mean little bastard when he wants to be-” can only work in its breathless terror because it comes from Jim. Even in this joke though, Lemons is moving the story forward. The reader, just like Jim, is watching Bill try to wrangle Lenny, and through Jim’s perspective the reader gets more information about it.
Why then is Lemons’ Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences an answer to the question, ‘when should an author choose the first person perspective versus a third person perspective and why?’ Because the story doesn’t function without the character voice. Every line in this story works in several ways either to describe the surroundings, characterize Jim, talk about Jim’s job, or characterize Lenny or Travis. A story that relies so heavily on a character’s perspective demands to be told by it. If a story does not, it shouldn’t be. Madelyn Lemons shows us a wonderful example of that through Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences