First of all, yes, I know it’s Friday. But since I got caught up yesterday and couldn’t post my Craft Thursday entry I decided I’d slip one in today.
Today I’d like to discuss point of view. I’m not talking about first (I) vs. second (you) vs. third (he/she/it). Instead, I want to address the importance of getting into your character’s skin so you can see their world through their eyes. Sounds creepy, doesn’t it?
Anyway, when I was 22, during the summer following my college graduation, I spent a month taking a class on Native American Mythology in Taos, New Mexico. I spent my days learning about Hopi creation myths and Jungian symbolism followed by helping the local church re-adobe their walls before heading to Pizanos, the local pizza joint for a few beers and delicious pie.
My best friend was there, too. She was a studio art major, so her days were spent just like mine, except in the mornings while I was geeking out over Jung, she was painting in the campus’s studio. We stayed in the same casita and spent a lot of time on the patio in the evenings chain smoking and waxing poetic about the vast mesas of potential laid out before us. It was a heady time.
One day, we signed up for an early morning hike through a local canyon. Above the trees and trails, high cliffs dotted with old Anasazi caves rose like ancient skyscrapers. When we arrived, the sun was just above the horizon and its light bathed the cliff walls. Our group paused to admire the show before starting our hike.
You know those moments of clarity? The ones when you’re fully invested in the instant of time you’re in? When you feel as though the secrets of the universe are within your reach?
As I looked at those high, red cliffs with the pink and pale yellow light dancing across its planes, I brushed up against infinity. I turned to my friend and said, “Everyone sees something different.”
She frowned at me. “What?”
“You’re an artist, so you see the interplay of light and shadow. The range of hues and the composition. Right?”
“But an anthropologist or historian will see something different. They see those cliffs through a lens of history. They won’t notice the light and shadow, but they’ll see things an artist would miss. A myth and folklore geek will love the symbols on the cave walls and the significance of the caves themselves as symbolic wombs. A geologist will see the rock formations and appreciate how rain and wind created something so majestic. Isn’t that fascinating?”
Being my friend, she wasn’t unused to me making such pronouncements back then–I was young and often very impressed with my naive wisdom. She looked at me, and without blinking said, “You’re an art history major with a history minor whose studied anthropology and loves myths. What do you see?”
I smiled. “I see all of it.”
It took me eight more years before I started to seriously write fiction, but now that I’ve been a writer for a while, I realize how important that moment was in my development. It was the first time I understood point of view.
As writers, it’s our job to see the world through the eyes of our characters. Often these characters will have experiences and knowledge we lack. Everyone sees colors and hears sounds and tastes foods and feels things as individuals. So when we write, we must constantly be aware that our characters are not us because they have unique experiences and biases and talents and challenges. Acknowledging this is the first step toward writing good characters.
The second step is learning how to do what I call “method writing.” You’ve probably heard of method acting. The Method, as it’s often called by Hollywood types, involves immersing oneself into the feelings and thoughts of the character. Often this is achieved by the actor recalling sensations or emotions from their own life.
It’s the same with writing. If I’m writing a scene where my character is angry, I recall a time when I was angry and bring those visceral memories to the page. I’ll amplify or reduce the severity of those sensation depending on the needs of the scene. But I’ll also adjust them based on the character I’m writing.
It’s more complicated than that, of course, because of what we’ve already covered. An assassin will experience grief differently from a child. I’ve been a child, so I can bring my experiences there into play. But I’ve never been an assassin. So I have to put myself in an assassin’s shoes. This is where imagination and the ability to extrapolate are your friends.
I can imagine, for example, that an assassin has to be somewhat hardened against emotions. Death is not a stranger to be feared. In that case, I’d write the emotions as the opposite of the ones I’ve experienced during my own meetings with Thanatos. In other words, I always start with how I’d react and adjust those known sensations to fit what I think my character would experience.
I hope that makes sense. It’s what works for me. It’s not an easy way to work by any means. I laugh and cry my way through every book I write and often walk away from sessions an emotional wreck. Also, lord help anyone who interrupts me when I’m writing a fight scene.
No matter how you manage to write convincing characters, the bottom line is that you have to be able to write from many perspectives. Sometimes your characters will do things that you would never do. Think dangerous thoughts and say disturbing things and perpetrate acts that disgust you.
You are not your characters. Your characters are not you. But during the space of time that you are writing them, you must learn to get inside their heads and hearts. You have to understand that an artist will see the waltz of light and shadow across cave openings, but a serial killer wants to crawl into those rocky wombs and paint the walls with tourists’s blood.