Bryn Greenwood, the author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will and Lie Lay Lain, is filling in for Therese Walsh today. Please welcome Bryn to Writer Unboxed!
We’ve heard that old gem so many times we don’t listen to it anymore. Don’t judge me until you walk a mile in my shoes. As writers, we’ve probably heard it in relationship to getting to know our main characters, but we’d do better to apply it to the myriad secondary and peripheral characters who interact with our main characters. By walking a mile in their shoes, we can learn even more about our protagonists.
Fifteen years ago, when I was querying agents with a novel that had three different point-of-view characters, most of my rejections cited that element as a problem. By the time I sold my most recent novel, multiple POVs had become so popular, nobody even flinched at the fact that my novel had sixteen narrators.
When asked why I go to such extremes, I usually forget to talk about the craft of storytelling, and end up talking about my own idiosyncratic obsessions. My urge to look at stories from all angles, to investigate all the characters, to excavate a dozen layers below the surface. Today, though, I want to talk about the ways that multiple narrators can elevate, alter, and complicate–in a good way–the story you want to tell.
If we only focus on our main characters in a scene, we’re in danger of making the other characters flat. We can fall into the trap of treating those secondary characters as props. If you look through your manuscript, you’ll see the props. The characters you need to make the action move, but who aren’t at the heart of the action. Or they don’t seem to be at first.
If your main characters go into a store to purchase something, the clerk who sells it to them is likely a prop. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you forget that all your characters, even the props, have narrative arcs. They had a life before they entered this scene and they’ll have one after they leave. That life should inform the way they interact with the main character, and it can also give you (and your readers) a perspective on your main character that you may be missing. It may even give you a new perspective on the whole story.
When I write, I tend to overlap in multiple layers. If I have three characters in a pivotal scene, I may write a version of the scene from each character’s point of view, even though only one will make it into the book. I do that because it gives me a chance to look at elements that may not be visible to any one character. It lets me test out the emotional impact of the scene on each character.
For example, a man and a young girl walk into a jewelry store and speak to a clerk. There are three people in the scene, three stories intersecting, regardless of which one you choose to tell. That the man wants to buy a wedding ring suggests there is yet a fourth narrative intersection happening off stage–the person for whom that wedding ring is intended. Which story are you telling? If it’s the man’s story, or the girl’s, the obvious narrative choice seems to be one of them. After you’ve written that scene from their POVs, however, consider that prop character. She might be able to tell us things the central characters don’t know about their situation. You can even use the clerk’s own narrative arc to reveal an underlying piece of the main plot.
In writing that scene, where a man and a girl walk into a jewelry store, I chose to tell it from the clerk’s perspective. Anyone reading the book already knows a great deal about the man and the girl at that point, so I wanted the reader to see something new about the world my characters are living in and how it perceives them. [Read more…]