POV CHARACTERS: Ways Writers Get You To Know Them

When I placed my fingers on the keyboard to begin the first draft of Boundaries, Ben Snow, the lawyer, was about to meet Sydney Bouquet, the client, under accidental circumstances. I did not know he would become a loner, she a formidable client. As he sat at a restaurant window watching her on the sidewalk, I knew him only from his reflections about his bad day at the office. About her I knew only that she was to grow from memories of two women, one I met in similar circumstances, the other a former client from my days practicing law. Ben was a blank slate waiting for colors, Sydney a plainspoken, razor-sharp woman in the midst of a great struggle, against a stacked deck, to regain custody of her son. One a skeleton waiting for flesh, the other waiting to be alchemized from two sources into a single character who would grow into someone not much like either one. All by following my nose.

Now that I knew a bit about them, I wanted to find a trail out of the restaurant. Wonder, curiosity, and imagination were my scouts. After the chance encounter, fabricated on the spot, and the song and dance about whether they would see each other again, I decided to follow Ben home. Suddenly I was in Tyee City, a lonely strip of eleven houses along a windy coastal road outside of town. Only his house had a second story, a turret room windowed all around with just enough space for a queen-sized bed. A made-up house in a real place, remote, perfect for a man who, by the time I got him home, became a loner preferring to look at life from a distance. Already he had become very intelligent but lacking in self-confidence in spite of a history of success in his work. And I saw that Sydney would be a great challenge for him.

A writer of fiction can only begin to know his characters as they begin to know each other. As in real life, they learn this gradually over time. But a writer must also find a seed of conflict. In that first session of that first draft, I hit upon the problem. Ben would withhold his true identify. There it was, fraught with possibility. Ahh, I thought, this trail is worth following. More layers of possibility began to grow like coral on a reef. Ben and Sydney would get themselves into trouble because their shared passion for the case. It would push them across – you guessed it – boundaries. They would grow a penchant for ethical violations in the decisions they would make in pursuit of Sydney’s reunion with her eight-year-old son. Some they would violate together, others by acting without the knowledge of the other. New obstacles kept arriving for them. It got quite messy, fraught with unpleasant consequences. They would need to find a path out. So would I. We were on the trail together.

Writing can be as much a vicarious experience for the writer as it is for his readers, especially if he doesn’t plan too much in advance. That’s what makes him the first reader. Just like driving your car along a winding, lane-less country road you’ve not driven before, writing the first draft of a story can be a better ride – at least for this writer – when he doesn’t see more of its arc than a night driver can see with his headlights.

We are all storytellers. Telling and embellishing stories is an archetype of the human mind, embedded in our DNA. It’s quite different – and for this writer/reader more satisfying – than navigating life using the tools of exposition. With our stories we scratch our itches, get our hands around what has happened to us, and sometimes find greater repose for the experiences and urges that occupy our minds. Someday you might find yourself putting yours on paper, too, enjoying acts of creation rising from your experience, from wonder and imagination, and from the delightful alchemy that happens when you throw them into a single pot of stew.

The biggest difference between you and writers (those of you who aren’t one) is that writers write them. When you think about responding to this post, you might prefer to think and talk about them. Either way, let us know your thoughts, questions, and opinions. Let’s take this anywhere it wants to go.

Jim

6 thoughts on “POV CHARACTERS: Ways Writers Get You To Know Them

  1. Hurrah for you, Jim, and for all writers! Moi, I will stick to reading stories. With gratitude for those who try so hard to tell of life, and so on and on. You make writing sound almost like…fun!

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  2. Great imagery here JIm. Especially luv this:

    “Writing can be as much a vicarious experience for the writer as it is for his readers, especially if he doesn’t plan too much in advance. That’s what makes him the first reader. Just like driving your car along a winding, lane-less country road you’ve not driven before, writing the first draft of a story can be a better ride – at least for this writer – when he doesn’t see more of its arc than a night driver can see with his headlights.”

    Thanks for the insight!

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  3. Lisa, I believe you are a writer. If you have the time, consider answering this: When is it advisable for a writer to lift his nose from the trail and plan where he is going? Do you decide this from your experience as a writer or as a reader of the work of others?

    Be well,
    Jim

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  4. Ahh. Great question Jim. And one I’ve been grappling with lately, as I am making the transition from short stories to the longer novella…
    Never been much of a planner. But once I got past 30 pages I realized I need a plan, a structure of some sort to keep track of it all. So I guess u cud say I decided it along the way as I wrote.
    But, the element of surprise can come from whatever I happen to be reading at the moment

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    • Lisa, I try to capitalize on each moment of surprise. It may not work for everyone. Those who need to set up a tight structure in advance should do so. I’m sure that they will have moments of surprise that change their courses and may even push them to the edge of the boundaries of their structures…or past those boundaries, forcing them to modify their advance planning.

      I try to keep a timeline of where the story has gone so far. I write brief chapter summaries. But when I’m having fun following my nose, I get way ahead of my last chapter summary. Right now in “Third Floor” I’m at a point where I need to bring the timeline up to date because keeping a handle on where I’ve been helps me make choices about where to go next. It means I’ll not have to spend so much time going through the manuscript to keep the complexities of the evolving plot clear in my mind. I can go back to the brief summaries. Then I put my nose back to the ground and allow myself to imagine what might naturally happen next based who who my characters have become. I am unlikely to project that timeline ahead because for me that would be no more than a guess. I’m not ready to try to see the end.

      I hope you are enjoying repeated surprises.

      Jim

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