Our guest today is Julia Fierro, author of novels The Gypsy Moth Summer (to be released on June 6th) and Cutting Teeth. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Glamour, The Millions, Poets & Writers, and other publications, and she has been profiled in The Observer and The Economist.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, which has grown into a creative home to 4,000 writers in NYC, Los Angeles, and online. SSWW was named “Best Writing Classes” by The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Brooklyn Magazine, the L Magazine; and “Best MFA-Alternative” by Poets & Writers.
The 3 Tiers of Point of View Technique: Observation, Interpretation & Imagination
Our writing instructors tell us again and again to “get closer” to our characters. We nod in agreement, all the while asking ourselves, but how do I get closer? And what does getting closer mean? There is nothing more frustrating than, after writing many pages, realizing you still don’t truly know your leading guy and/or gal.
We are all close to someone—usually many someones—and this makes us natural character experts. We spend much of our time analyzing our loved ones, our neighbors and co-workers, even the strangers sitting across from us on the subway, interpreting gestures, expressions, appearance, dialogue, and tone. We have all imagined the thoughts that pass through the minds of our lovers and friends and enemies; the celebrities we will never meet in person but who we feel already acquainted with thanks to the power of our interpretation and imagination. Writers can use this innate curiosity to create characters so complex they are impossible to be dismissed—characters worthy of the reader’s sympathy and investment.
Like their creators, our characters are capable of curiosity, and their eyes, focused on the right detail and filtered through the right lens, will unveil meaning in the same the way a camera does as it pans in on a subject in a film.
The Power of Observation and Interpretation
For the purpose of this essay, we’ll name our protagonist Vivian. The precise way Vivian interprets the details that surround her—her boss eyeing the run in her pantyhose, the long-time crush flirting with Vivian’s best friend, the neighbor she suspects steals her Sunday Times—reveals specifics about Vivian’s present situation, her state of mind, and her mood, and, digging even deeper, her dreams and regrets, her secret fears and obsessions. The quality of a character’s interpretation and imagination can be used to guide the reader “closer” to unique, but also concrete, emotional implication, exposing (compassionately, of course) a character’s one-of-a kind perspective at that specific time and place in his or her life. By making careful choices as to what, why and especially how Vivian sees herself, the world, and her place in the world (she feels judged, slighted, stolen from), a writer can infuse a story with emotional urgency, proving to the reader that this story must be told.
Observation is the most superficial POV technique. Even a young child can observe. The air is cold. The teacher is angry. It is raining. It is important for writers to remember that observations are general—they tell instead of show—and don’t reveal what the character is thinking and feeling uniquely.
Don’t rely on purely observational thoughts. Instead, develop observations so they feel like interpretations implying Vivian’s unique “take” on her setting and situation, and, most importantly, her impression of the other characters in the story. Every detail should “work hard” (a phrase we love to use in workshop) and enhance all that has already been established. There are many jobs a detail can take on. Details can characterize people, the setting, the situation and/or mood; give necessary information that furthers the plot; create urgency, suspense, mystery, surprise, tension; or simply make the reader gasp, laugh or feel emotion. I often scrawl “too info-only” on my students’ stories (and my own work as well) in moments where the detail’s only purpose is to give the reader information. Purely observed details handed to the reader through a character’s shallow observations can feel insignificant, slowing down the momentum of a story, draining the sense of urgency, and reminding the reader of the presence of the writer, aka the puppeteer pulling the strings.
Writers often struggle when describing a character’s life activity. The tasks we do day in and day out—making coffee, brushing your teeth, dressing for work, mowing the lawn, etc. You can tweak the details in these seemingly mundane moments so the act pulse with significance. Place Vivian in front of the bathroom mirror. Let her brush her teeth. It is not the what that matters but the how. How does she brush her teeth? Is she a meticulous person who must do every task perfectly? Does she brush so hard that her gums bleed? Use this moment to reveal how she feels about her partner Joe. Does Vivian grow angry when she sees Joe has left the tube of paste uncapped—again? Does she stomp out of the bathroom ready to rage at him? Perhaps she swallows her anger and recap the toothpaste herself. Or… does she take a more passive-aggressive action and dip Bob’s toothbrush in the toilet bowl water before placing it back on the sink.
Observing and being Observed
Let Vivian study her face in the reflection. What does she see? It isn’t the details (the what—wrinkles, red spots, symmetrical features, one eye larger than the other, lovely blue eyes) that matter as much as how she interprets them. Allowing your character to analyze his or her face through a hyper-critical lens will give you a jumpstart on your journey in “getting closer” to him or her, an understanding that will lead you, ultimately, to understanding why the story is essential.
Each time you walk into a new friend’s home for the first time, you observe their family photos, knickknacks, and the books on their shelves (come on, you know you do it), but you also interpret these details. You search for clues. In the way they organize the family’s many pairs of shoes, make their bed, and sort their garbage. Even the scent and temperature of their home hints at who the observed character is under his or her carefully polished surface. This observer/observed technique is a fantastic tool because it characterizes the observed character (the new friend), but equally characterizes the observer (your protagonist Vivian) revealing how she needs to see the world surrounding her depending on that specific moment in her life, a moment of great urgency which often doubles as the timeframe for your story.
Imagination is the Silver Bullet
Even more useful is a character’s imagination, aka the creative writer’s “silver bullet.” Our fantasies reveal the most unique aspects of our character—how we hope to be seen, how we fear we will actually be seen, and the two combined create a complex and singular persona.
Every fantasy is an assemblage of unique details. No two characters’ fantasies are identical. Think of it this way: Your protagonist Vivian, a woman in her late 30s, recently separated from a spouse, has gone back to her blind date’s apartment after a dinner out. She and her date are in a cab together, and as they chat casually about benign subjects (work, real estate, the long-time gripes they have concerning their siblings, the latest Game of Thrones episode), Vivian’s mind is abuzz with invention. She imagines what her date is thinking, how he sees her, how he interprets what she says (her thoughts a useful structural tool to break up dialogue and keep the reader grounded in POV and scene). She imagines what her date is feeling (he is aroused, a little tipsy). She even imagines what her date imagines she is feeling (that she, too, is aroused, and, in reality, she is somewhat attracted to him but feeling anxious after noticing his jacket is coated in cat hair—she is allergic). By the time they arrive at the apartment, you know what Vivian wants, needs, and fears. You anticipate her pleasure (if things go well), her disappointments (if things do not), and, already, your story is rich with expectation, urgency, and intrigue.
A character’s imagination is conjured through implication—the reader has the fun task of interpreting each of the protagonist’s fantasies—so the delivery of meaning feels more subtle than the above-mentioned telling of pure observation. A character’s imagination is a perfect tool for literary writers, who want their readers to do a bit more interpretative work rather than being handed answers.
Our character Vivian, like us, lives in her own “world” always. The idiosyncratic walls around each of us prevents us from knowing, truly knowing, what even our loved ones are thinking and feeling. This is the mystery that makes our real lives full of wonder, and, at times, fraught with tension, conflict, and loneliness. Getting closer to your characters means scaling those walls, gaining access to the mind, to the intimate thoughts and feelings of others. Point-of-view is the key to crafting unique characters, and it is the hopes and fears of our characters that dictate structure, including that illusive plot.
Know your character and you will know your story.
How do you get to know your characters and their stories? What techniques do you use?