When I read Kekla Magoon’s YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN, I was blown away by the multiple points of view and reached out to ask Kekla if she’d consider joining us to talk about that in a Teachers Write lesson. She graciously agreed – and has today’s Tuesday Quick-Write!
In storytelling, everything is a matter of perspective. Writing thoughtfully and convincingly through the viewpoint of a single character is a challenge to any writer. Incorporating multiple viewpoints in the same story simply brings this challenge to the forefront of our awareness, both as writers and as readers.
A common question I get asked about my YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN is “How did you juggle all those characters and viewpoints?” That novel contains vignettes from (gulp!) eighteen separate viewpoint characters. Writing multiple viewpoints forces you to think in very detailed ways about how each of your characters really sees the world. It reminds both writer and reader that there is no empirical “truth.” Rather, everything (and I do mean everything) that occurs in a story is filtered through the narrator’s point of view.
In any scene that involves more than one person, each character will be carrying his or her own set of desires, fears, anxieties, thoughts, and observations. If two different people walked into the same room, and were asked to describe it, they are probably going to say different things.
One person might say the room is square with high ceilings. One person might say it is white with gold trim. Someone else might say it’s an office that appears outfitted for an accountant or bookkeeper. These three people could be describing the same room, couldn’t they?
When you write from a single viewpoint, you will not necessarily be describing things as they appear empirically in the world. You can’t possibly enumerate every detail of the space, so you must pick and choose the things to mention, based on your character’s tendencies. In HOW IT WENT DOWN, all of my characters inhabit the same neighborhood, but they each experience it differently. These layers come from your character’s emotional life.
A boy who is scared of the gangs in his neighborhood walks down the street and sees everything in terms of his fear—innocuous things become a threat. The gang leader, on the other hand, feels very much in control of the space, and desires to exert that control, thus he views things as small in comparison to himself. A teenage girl who wants nothing but to get out of the neighborhood looks upon things with frustration and disdain, as compared to a middle grader for whom this block is and always has been her whole world. How would each of these characters respond to, say, stubbing their toe on a fire hydrant?
Practice seeing the world through the eyes of different characters. What interests and excites them? How do their emotions impact their worldview?
Writing Exercise: Write a scene between two characters from the perspective of one person. Then, rewrite the scene from the other character’s perspective. How does it change the way the scene plays out? Consider the character’s motivation and interests, and the way they are likely to describe the scene through their unique viewpoint. What does each character notice about the room or the other person, physically speaking? How does his or her emotional state inform his or her reactions and thoughts as the characters interact?
Optional: This exercise is especially effective if you take an existing scene from something you’ve previously written, and flip the viewpoint. What do you learn about your original viewpoint character by seeing them through someone else’s eyes? What do you learn about your secondary characters’ motivations that might help you create tension elsewhere in the story?
Feel free to share a paragraph or two of your writing from today in the comments if you’d like!