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Walk a Mile in Your Characters’ Shoes

Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Gross

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.

Firstly, the clerk misconstrues their relationship. Imagining that they are soon to be stepfather and stepdaughter, she interprets their physical awkwardness toward each other as indicative of an emotional distance between them. That perspective reminds readers that the relationship they’ve become familiar with is still alien to outsiders. It also reveals the two main characters’ uncertainty about the situation they’re in. They are likely unaware of their own body language, but seen from another character’s POV, it’s very telling.

Secondly, the jewelry store clerk leaps to an immediate judgment about their financial situation. She considers them poor and grubby, which is not how they see each other. Her perspective is from the other side of a sharp class divide, allowing me to show the reader this divide exists, without relying on the main characters to acknowledge it.

Even as the clerk reveals the main characters in a new light, she is playing out her own narrative arc. Having been disappointed in her romantic relationships, she compares her lifetime of loneliness with the relationship before her: awkward and perhaps inappropriate, but loving. Over the course of that single chapter, the only one she appears in, she moves from confusion to politely muffled horror to acceptance and wonder.

I’m not suggesting that you should write a novel with sixteen narrative POVs, or that you should write every scene from every character’s POV. Rather, I’d like to suggest that even if you intend to write from a single point of view, whether first or third person, you can benefit from my over the top, slightly unhinged methods. As writers, we get to choose which of our characters to follow, which of their stories to give more weight to. The more we investigate our characters, the more likely we are to arrive at more interesting outcomes.

To get there, step up your role-playing game. Walk in the shoes of more of your characters. Find out where your secondary and peripheral characters go when your main plot doesn’t need them. Test drive telling the story–or parts of the story–from other characters’ POVs. You may see seismic shifts in how the conversation plays out. Changing narrators can radically alter a scene, heighten conflict, and introduce more tension in your dialogue.

What about you? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about what happens outside your main character’s field of vision? Does your current project have a seemingly unimportant side character who might offer new perspective on your protagonist?

About Bryn Greenwood [1]

BRYN GREENWOOD is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.