Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A house with many windows

flickr image by Uncle Phooey

An exercise I find useful in developing both character and plot is imagining my story from every main character's point of view, and having each character write an account of the story in a letter to me, the author. These sketches don't have to be long. A couple of hand written pages is usually enough. But they have to touch on the salient points of the story from that character's point of view.

One of the interesting outcomes of this exercise is it begins to define me as narrator as much as it fleshes out the characters. In a future entry I will talk about that invisible character behind any work of fiction, the narrator. You never really meet him, not even in autobiographical works, but this spirit shapes the entire work and is, in fact, its voice.

So these letters are an appeal to a subtle yet powerful deity. I find it works best if I imagine each character trying to make his case to a tetchy, somewhat arbitrary judge. A dear-sir quality pervades the letters; but also a hello-it's-me tone. They are emphatic attempts to influence the narrator's telling of the story in the writer's favor.

Most importantly, they are to be written while the author is immersed in each character's persona. That's key. These are not abstract impressions of what the characters might write, based on the author's research and ideas. They are actual notes, dashed off in a moment of enthusiasm, or rage, or sadness, or despondency by a character relating his role in the story. A sense of urgency and a desire to be understood impels the writer. The predominant traits of the character should be evident in the letter: meekness, haughtiness, arrogance, callousness, stupidity... those personality traits have to show up. Which means the writer has to get thoroughly into the role as his pen channels the character's version of events onto the page.

It's common knowledge that every witness to an event has an entirely different story to tell. You can take that adage a little farther by likening the story to a house with many windows. Each of the characters gets to look in through his own window, but the full layout and the details of all the rooms only become visible to the narrator. You can turn that around, too. Each character can look out of his own window into the great beyond, but only the narrator will have a complete view of the encompassing sky.

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