“Closed in a room, my imagination becomes the universe, and the rest of the world is missing out.”
― Criss Jamie
I only write in first person point of view. I’ve tried my hand at third person, but I struggle with seeing my stories from above, rather than through their eyes. I will read either style, but I’m terribly jealous of the ability to use third person to “head hop” between main characters, where mine can only see and know what they see and know.
When I write, I want to strap in and be them, to experience their emotions, cry, laugh, sweat a little. I enjoy my own visceral reactions to the fictional world I’m creating for my characters, like the tightening in my chest when I write a tense scene. I act out most scenes containing dialogue and physical action to better capture the motion, the expression, the body position. I also make rules for the set within the scene, like the position of furniture, people, and props. In theatre, the way the actor interacts with the set and moves through the stage is called blocking, and when I’m doing my solo acts, I block everything in a similar way. When I “become” my characters, I’m fully committed, even standing differently when I play my deep voiced, rigid, six-foot-four main character, Everett, though I’m five-one and have the vocal range of a teenage girl.
Perspective sets the tone for every story. This month, I read three books, all from first person point of view, all vastly different in how perspective was employed: Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
Sunrise Over Fallujah is the story of a young American soldier deployed to Iraq during the early part of the war in 2003. It follows the main character, Birdie throughout the conflict as he experiences combat for the first time. I found reading this book to be like watching a recording of story on a muted GoPro. I can see it, but I can’t feel it. I was inside his mind with no access to his heart. At times, I felt like I was flying outside the character, rather than living his life for a little while. Two men in his battalion were killed in conflict, and there was no reaction from Birdie. He hardly reacted to anything, so I didn’t either. In the end, it was flat, the story never really standing up, though I lived in Birdie’s head from cover to cover.
A challenging and intriguing story, Rules for Werewolves, features a group of derelict, homeless young people who stalk through Los Angeles like a pack, breaking into vacant homes and stealing to survive. This minimalist story was told entirely in dialogue without indicating who was speaking, with six chapters of narrative told from the perspectives of several characters sprinkled throughout. As a writer, I was interested in the constraints of telling a story that way. The entire plot is communicated through dialogue, and if no one is speaking, no one is moving the narrative forward. Since the story provided such limited information, it had a voyeuristic feel, like I was peeking between fence posts, watching something I wasn’t supposed to see. I couldn’t access the other pieces of the story, so I got to decide how the characters felt. It gave me a strange sense that I was making assumptions, as one does when they people watch in an airport and make snap decisions after seeing only a fraction of someone’s life.
Finally, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a magical fantasy novel narrated by an unlikely protagonist – a seven year old boy who has a strange experience with a neighbor girl and ends up taking home a creature inside the bottom of his foot. When he extracts the little worm, it transforms into a human woman, who terrorizes him, and the only person who believes him is his neighbor. There is an inherent innocence in this story that draws you right in to a nostalgic place, where it’s easy to remember being that young and developing a perspective about the world. In one scene, he takes a shortcut to get somewhere in a new way, and muses how adults never take shortcuts and explore new places, remaining on the main roads and never taking detours. That brutal truth lingered within me. Gaiman writes with all the senses, letting you as the reader feel the fear within the character’s ability to process it. Though, there were points when I stopped to wonder if I could trust this recollection of events, or if this story was conjured up in the wild imagination of a young boy.
Writers: How do you show the world you’ve created through the eyes of your characters? Readers: What helps you lock into a story?