In college, when I was involved with the student senate and considering a career in politics, my boyfriend gave me a very good insight into situational law. He said the standard wisdom in any me-versus-you case was that there were three takes on things: mine, yours, and what really happened. Those words have stayed with me to become one of my most useful tools where writing fiction is concerned.
As a long-time editor/beta reader, I’ve probably doled out one piece of advice more than any other: if the story doesn’t work the way you’re telling it, try telling it from a different character’s point of view. As writers we get ideas all the time. The act of writing a story is the act of fleshing out those ideas as best we can. Stories are like flowers: they start from a seed, they sprout, they blossom, they grow. They meet the sunlight, bask in it for a time, then come to their inevitable end. I remember a story I worked on years ago. The germ of it was what goes on in someone’s mind when they’re in a coma? I started out trying to write the story from the coma patient’s perspective. Ultimately, I couldn’t work that and the story became shared point-of-view between the coma patient’s mother and the patient’s physical therapist. The story became a brilliant illustration of my friend’s advice: what she saw, what he saw, and what really happened.
It can be hard to tell which perspective is the right one to use. Why not try out all the voices clamoring to be heard? Last year I wrote what I thought was a finished novella. I was proud of myself when it resolved in just about 50,000 words. Dutifully, I sent it off to my favorite first readers, among whom are my parents. I love getting their perspective on my writing because it’s a generational perspective and they’ve proved themselves to be excellent first readers, pointing out things I don’t notice. One of the book’s minor characters shows up sparingly but plays a pivotal enough role. My dad’s comment after reading? “You never described that character’s appearance.” In my defense I did, although not until his last appearance in the book, and then in a fairly oblique way since I’m not big on long narratives about the way people look. But my dad’s comment got me thinking about how that minor character was the one who stood out for him. I was secretly so pleased because he was my favorite character in the story.
Now he has his own book. It’s not the same story told from his point of view, but it is his own story that fits in as a precursor to the other one. I actually like it even better; it’s told from first-person POV rather than third-person. That gives it an immediacy and gives me a way of telling the story from the inside out instead of from the outside in. As a character-driven writer, I far prefer that technique although I’m smart enough to realize that not every story is right for first-person POV. (That’s going to be a separate blog post one of these days.)
So which character gets the focus? Who gets to tell the story? This week I saw Les Mis with my 17-year-old for the second time. Afterward, my very astute teen turned to me and said “I like Javert. He’s a great character. If the story had been told a little bit differently, he would have been the hero.” That’s absolutely correct, and I was not only filled with admiration for the observation, but also wanted to immediately hear the story with Javert as hero instead of antagonist.
Who’s the right narrator? The one who tells the story best, I always say.
When in doubt, there’s an exercise I like to do. I take a scene and retell it from the supporting cast’s perspective. However many characters are involved in the scene, that’s how many times I’ll write it. This not only helps me to get to know my characters, but it also helps me to understand the most important elements of that particular scene and where the descriptions need tweaking or improvement. When in doubt, try it out (thank you, Ms. Frizzle). This all gets back to my college friend and his legal description. Thank you, Michael, wherever you are these days. You’ve helped me more than you know.