Notice What Your Characters Notice
Point of view is often difficult to write and maintain, especially when, if you are like me, you’re starting out and getting your head around all the sorts of things you have to learn when writing a novel. (I've just finished the first draft of my first YA Sci-fi/fantasy novel).
When done well, deep point of view draws the reader into the story. When done badly, it’s like getting a cold dead fish slapped in your face and you can’t close the book quick enough. Or is that just me? I recently came across this blog post by Peter Summersby, ‘Notice what they Notice,’ about noticing what your character notices and I found it fascinating and decided to conduct a workshop around this idea with my local Writer’s Group, Dribbles and Scribbles.
In Peter’s article, he discusses the fact that men and women will notice different things, as would a thief and a doctor. He acknowledges that writers should use all the senses while writing, but for this demonstration he focuses on just what they see. Peter shows a picture of a female elf laying on a bed of moss with a knife held loosely in her hand. He demonstrates what he means by what two different men observe, and what that may reveal about them and their character.
In the first account the man notice her breasts under the green dress, this could indicate that the man has feelings for her, he might be in love with her. It could also indicate that he is wanton and actively seeks out sexual encounters.
In the second account the man notices her clothing too but instead notices what they are made of. He also notices what the knife is made of but finally he notices the small coin pouch hanging on her belt. This indicates two things he is trying to assess her wealth and steal from her, or notices that she might have rich friends with which he could become friendly with to gain even more money.'
'In both situations the woman hasn’t changed, their view is different, this was done to illustrate that the character has their own values that should differ from character to character. If they all notice the same thing it becomes harder to separate the characters in your readers mind. If the reader is truly invested in your characters this approach is a good way to drop the reader into the characters mind and assists with maintaining deep point of view.’ Peter Summersby, Notice what they Notice.
Writer’s Group Activity
For the activity, we thought of a scene in our current Work In Progress (W.I.P.), we picked two characters, and then we rewrote the scene from the two different perspectives. I've included mine as an example.
The original scene from my novel, The Gateway Chronicles: Keystone Quest. (Working title)
Jake found it mind-numbing sitting at the back following the herd, eating the dust that was kicked up by a couple of hundred head of cattle, and Grandma Andy going on and on about her earthworms.
‘Did you know that there are over 600 species of Earthworm in the world and at least five are giant. We have one here in Australia. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm is one of the few left. They are very special. Even David Attenborough, the naturalist, knew they were special.’ Grandma Andy turned to Jake, ‘I have one of the last known pockets of the GGE’s in Australia on my farm. And I’ve discovered some giant worms around here. New species I reckon!’
Jake rolled his eyes. He’d heard it all before. How they were special and endangered. How they were unique and needed protecting. Seriously, they were worms. How could they be so special?
A sudden disturbance ahead, a shimmer of light against the horizon, and the cattle went from plodding along and having to be harried by whip and dog, to stampeding in every direction. It happened so quickly. Within minutes, he was by himself with only dust and his grandmother’s last words hanging in the air for company.
For this exercise, I've choosen 13 year old Jake, and his 60 year old scientist grandmother, Grandma Andy. I’ve also tried to include the rest of the senses as well to make a more interesting read.
1. ‘I’m sick of eating dust at the back of the herd,’ said Jake, spitting red dust and wiping his mouth while sweat trickled down his face. He had never gotten used to the heat of the Queensland outback and longed for the coolness of Melbourne. Cows mooed to one another. The smell of cow dung was everywhere. He wished he was back home with his Mum playing video games, or with his mates at the skate park.
Jake heard his Grandma Andy speaking but it just sound like, ‘Blah! Blah! Blah! Worms.’ On repeat. He rolled his eyes. Man she was interesting when she talked about her travels, but worms! Seriously. They were so boring. He rolled his eyes, hoping at the same time Gran wouldn't catch him at it. He spat again. And another thing, he couldn’t understand why he was always left at the back of the herd.
‘Why can’t I…’ The words barely had left his mouth when the cows went from quiet mooing and dogs yipping at their heels to keep them moving, to loud bellowing and thundering of hooves as the cattle scattered in every direction. Briefly he glimpsed his grandmother among the chaos, then she disappeared, leaving him. As the swirl of dust settled, only the smell of fresh cow dung hung in the air. Silence fell and Jake was alone.
2. Andy looked over at Jake and could see boredom written on his face. Every so often he would smile, nod politely, and then spit the dust from his mouth, wipe the grit from his eyes and slap at the flies buzzing around his face.
Andy turned her face to the sun and let the warmth penetrate the coldness of southern Victoria that seemed to settle in her bones and only the warmth of the Queensland sun would chase it away. The gentle lowing of the cattle, the cracking of whips, the yips of the working dogs, and the feel of her horse beneath her were like a balm to her soul.
Andy turned to Jake and could see him slump further in the saddle, ‘I have one of the last known pockets of the GGE’s in Australia on my farm. And I’ve discovered some giant worms around here. New species I reckon!’
‘Why can’t I…’ said Jake, rolling his eyes. But, his words were cut off. Andy caught a glimpse of a familiar flash of light up ahead in a clearing. ‘No! It can’t be. Not here,’ she said more to herself than anyone else.
Andy urged her horse into a gallop, just as the usually docile cattle started bellowing panic. Whatever it was up head, sent the cattle stampeding in all directions, kicking up a dust cloud which obliterated the view. Glancing behind Andy saw Jake sitting like a sack on Dodger, who stood docile among the bedlam. What? Did Dodger just wink at her? And then they were gone from sight.
Through this exercise I discovered that in the first draft, though I have tried to write third person close point of view, I have really just been looking over my various characters shoulders and noticing what I would notice if I was looking at the same scene, experiencing the same activity.
This exercise was an eye opener for me. I found I had really get into my characters’ skin, so to speak, in order to pay close attention to what they would notice, what my character would be feeling, thinking, smelling. The smells in themselves would be different for different people, depending on past experiences and what they would associate those smells with. This means I really have to know and understand my characters.
I have a lot of rewriting to do, but I know my stories from now on will be written differently. Two recently released books that I have read, and I highly recommend, does this very thing of noticing what your character notices in deep point of view: Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr, and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon.
Let me know how you go with your own stories and if this post helped you in any way.
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