Differing Points of View

“Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but they are wrong. They know less, that’s why they write: trying to find out what everyone takes for granted.”

Margaret Atwood

One of the most challenging tasks a writer faces when telling a story is getting into the heads of all of the characters involved. I’ve heard many writers claim (myself included) that every character in our stories contains at least some small fragment of ourselves within it—no matter how ignoble, debased, heroic, gullible, naive, stalwart, whatever. Although we try to individualize our characters, we remain limited by our own experiences and perspectives.

There’s a game a lot of writers play. I do this myself at times. As part of people-watching (particularly when bored to distraction), I wonder to myself, “What’s his story?”, “Where did she get that pink hat?”, “Why did she choose that tattoo?”, and so on. In my head, I make up the stories of these people’s lives, trying to determine what brought them to this time and place. Do I know for certain? Would I ever dare ask them? No. But it’s an interesting and pleasant way to exercise one’s creative energies.

A variation on the game is to think out what the a likely story is and then to derive one that is far less than obvious explanation, but not one that is so fantastic as to be unbelievable. It’s a way of thinking a bit outside the usual track. Rather than “He wears that sweatshirt because it’s his favorite team”, it becomes, “He wears that sweatshirt because that’s where the long-lost love of his life went and it’s the other way he can remember her.” From that single conjecture, I can weave an entire story about who he is, who she was, what she might have looked like, what their relationship was like, and how it ended.

These little snippets can often help me fill in gaps in existing stories I’m working on. It can also help me further develop existing characters by casting them into these new roles. Even small incidents can provide a great deal of insight into a character.

There is a reason so many writers are also people-watchers by nature. We have only our eyes through which to examine the world. Trying to see it through someone else’s eyes (no matter how fictional) can open it up in ways we might not have expected.

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