Grace A. Johnson
The Importance of Differing Perspectives
Or, in more accurate terms, how your novel is like a potluck.
*waves* Well, hello there, my lovelies! I'm just here to share with y'all a post for which I put off writing Bound and Determined for two days - I mean, a post I was inspired to write after thinking about my struggles with my characters.
Seriously, though. When I had the idea for this, everything made sense and was like full of writerly revelation. Then I started writing it and realized that it makes no sense. at all.
So maybe you'll get something out of this. I don't. If anything, I'll probably just make you hungry. Anyway, like I said, I wasted two nights of BAD-writing to word-vomit all this, so I kinda had to do something with it. *winks*
Believe it or not, this isn’t a political, cultural, or theological post...although the title certainly gives off that impression, since, you know, different points-of-view and knowing how to understand them are imperative in those three topics. Or life in general, actually.
If you’d like to think of it in those terms, you’re more than welcome to, as the true subject of my post is rather similar.
But instead of talking about real life, I’m talking about fictional characters. (My most favorite subject, especially if you ask my family.)
Okay, okay, so there’s a few real-life experiences thrown in...particularly the one that occurred this evening (or, well, the evening of the day I’m writing this post) while I was thinking about why in the great googly moogly some of my characters give me so much grief.
You see, there are these two characters—whose names I’m not divulging for privacy reasons (and, you know, so that they don’t come after me with swords or hatchets or the like)— that have nearly driven me insane multiple times. We’ll call these two X and D.
Mainly, it’s because of their personalities...they’re so hard to pinpoint that at times it seems as though they don’t actually possess one. Or, at least that’s the case with D. I think I’ve finally gotten it sorted out, but it took me close to six months to do so. X, on the other hand, has a personality...I guess...it’s just so hard for me to portray him because I feel like his personality changes and shifts—and not in a natural way. In more of a Grace-is-trying-to-do-something-but-her-character-is-being-strangely-insubordinate-and-needs-a-whipping kind of way. You know the one.
Not to mention I really wish I’d thought him through back when I first wrote and introduced him, so that way I wouldn’t be wanting to completely revamp his character now. (Okay, not completely...I know there are a lot of people who love X just the way he is, so I’ll retain his best qualities and just add way more bad ones.)
I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
D is the one who’s given me the most problems, especially recently...as in, whilst writing Bound and Determined. I mean, now that I’m 47 chapters and 157k words into the story, I’d better have everything together, and for the most part I think I do, but while I was dwelling on a character in a totally separate book that I was reading, I was reminded of my struggles with D.
But back to my point.
Which is that something dawned on me, a piece of advice I’d like to share. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late for me to apply it to my wildly complex characters whose stories are nearly complete (well, the first half of them, anyway), so I’ll not only be applying it to my later novels, I’ll be sharing it with you!
Your novel is like a potluck. And, if we’re talking a good potluck here (and I’d venture to say we are), then not everyone is going to be bringing the same things. I mean, you can only have so much potato salad, am I right? Eventually you’ll wish someone had brought some pasta salad (we love our salads here in the South), a meat other than fried chicken (though, really, is there ever too much fried chicken?), and water instead of so much sweet tea (again, you can never go wrong with sweet tea...unless you’re using an artificial sweetener, in which case, that’s just wrong).
Trust me, I’ve been to gatherings where everybody on the whole durn planet brought green beans and mac and cheese and there was basically nothing else. Doesn’t make for a very balanced meal, does it?
So everyone has to bring something (or multiple somethings; can’t go to a potluck without enough to at least feed your own family) to the table that’s unique. Something different. Something that belongs solely to them—because even if it’s not your favorite type of dressing, at least it’s there, instead of another bag of King’s Hawaiian rolls.
(Okay, now I’m just making myself hungry. Anybody got some chicken and dumplings they’d like to share?)
Your characters are just like that, family or church members bringing their signature dishes, and your novel is just like a potluck. When you don’t take the time to carefully examine each of your characters, establish their philosophies, and develop their personalities, you end up with a lot of banana pudding and no English trifle or chocolate cake.
In other, less hunger-inducing terms, cultivating, understanding, and portraying the differing perspectives of each of your characters is key to enhancing your theme, message, or simply making your characters come to life.
Even if you’re not writing a story full of deep psychology or philosophical leanings...even if you don’t have a strong theme or inspirational message...even if your story is a mystery instead of a dramatic romance…you still have characters whose strengths need to be made evident.
You still have characters who are going to disagree on something—like the circumstances of the railroad mogul’s murder, their sister’s choice of a husband, or moving to a new state—and you still need to ensure that each of their perspectives are full explored, defined, and included to bring each character to life. After all, no one likes a source of conflict who’s views have no foundation or a villain without a cause or a hero who doesn’t even know what he’s fighting for. (Unless, of course, you’re shooting for some psychedelic story that turns life on its head...in which case, I don’t know why you’ve read this far.)
But let’s return to the subject of themes and messages.
Jane Austen is lauded for not only being an extremely talented writer who penned romances (and swoony heroes) we will cherish for ages—she is known for having a great understanding of the human psyche and philosophies, and a heart for reform. In her stories, she presented a vast array of people and perspectives, each of them with their faults and merits, to show her readers the issues with the society of her day and humanity itself.
But what struck me as interesting while reading Pride and Prejudice was that she never openly stated her personal opinions. Of course she didn’t, you say. She didn’t write the story from her point-of-view.
On that note, I’d like to argue that all authors write from their point-of-view. Even if the opinions or belief their characters hold differ from their personal ones, everything they write is filtered through their own perspective. You honestly can’t convince me otherwise, because I’ve seen this evident in my own writing.
All authors, that is, except for Austen. There was no doubt that she was against classism and prejudice and pride…but that opinion was never enforced through her characters. Do you see what I mean? She merely gave us all the different perspectives—from Elizabeth and Darcy’s to Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins to Bingley and Jane’s to Mrs. Bennet and Lydia’s—and allowed us to make our own observations and decisions.
You can take away from Pride and Prejudice the idea that judging others by their reputation is wrong, or that pride is the inescapable downfall of everyone, or that class doesn’t matter, or that overlooking everyone’s faults is better than being judgmental, or that you can’t trust anyone...or, I mean, anything, really.
To be honest, I took from it the idea that extremely amiable, kind, oblivious, and nonjudgmental people are, like Mr. Bennet implied, destined to be poor and endlessly taken advantage of. While people who possess a great deal of self-respect, hold themselves at a distance from others, are selective of who they keep company with, and carefully observe others’ words and actions are most likely to end up prosperous, with close friends who truly respect them, and unable to be negatively affected by the poor actions of others.
So there is some good to being prideful and prejudiced after all, isn’t there?
That’s not my point.
My point is that it’s up to you, as the author, to develop your characters to the point that
your readers love them even when they’re unlovable;
your readers are able to understand what they believe and why they believe it, regardless of their own personal views;
every choice your character makes corresponds with their philosophy and personality;
your story is well-rounded, due to all the developed characters who bring something unique to the table.
That’s what I missed, what I never thought about, while writing the Daughters of the Seven Seas series. Now I’ve had to muddle through my messages, my themes, and my characters’ voices and personalities over a course of months when I could have just taken a step back and examined everything from a seat at the head of the table.
Nona of that—all 1,480 words—made any sense to you, did it? Oh, well. I had to get it out somehow. At least I’ll have this on record for myself.
Before you begin plotting your novel, ask yourself what your themes are. For example, my themes for Bound and Determined have shifted around so much because I never thought long and hard about them in the beginning (#diehardpanster), so what began as a story of hope turned into one of faith, until now I’m a mix of grace, rejoicing, God’s will, His presence, and identity in Christ. I’m kinda all over the place, aren’t I?
So while letting your story, your characters, and the Holy Spirit lead you is always recommend, have a clear idea what what God is putting on your heart for each story, so that the themes can come through strong, with clarity and impact, instead of being a crazy muddle. (Because seriously, guys, I think I’m the only one who likes crazy muddles...and they drive me bananas!)
How do you determined your themes?
Start by looking at each of your characters and asking these questions:
What’s their purpose in this story?
What needs to change in their life?
What must they learn to bring about this change?
Of course, throw in a few extra questions, depending on your story/character and needs, but starting here is great!
Let’s take my character Billy, for example. He has this tiny little arc, you could call it, that contributes to one of the many themes in BAD, so my answers for these questions would be:
To show how great God’s saving power is
The way he lives—he needs to come to a place of repentance and trust in God, whatever that may take (believe me, it takes quite a bit)
What the true gift of salvation is and how to walk in faith
See what I mean? Now I know what my themes are (at least for a book entirely about Billy).
We can go even deeper than that to formulate our message. Think of it like a sermon—and no, I’m not saying your story has to be preachy; these guidelines apply to any kind of message. Just use a sermon as an example.
Every sermon is built on a theme—which usually comes from a Bible verse, theological topic, or struggle in our everyday lives—similar to the ones I mentioned above. From those vague themes, like salvation and faith, the preacher builds his message.
For Billy, the message is walking in faith and the gift of salvation. Rina pretty much preaches a sermon on that to him that goes a little something like this:
“Xavier read to me a passage from scripture, which says that if we earthly men, the vilest of us, give to our children good gifts, how much more will our Heavenly Father give to His children gifts beyond our wildest imagining? He has offered to each and every one of us upon this earth the gift of salvation. Billy, He is offering it to you. As you would desire a good life for your future children, so God desires a wonderful eternity for you. Now, would you want for your children to refuse your gift, or to pay you a grand sum for what you would freely bestow?
“Billy, I ask you, what is holding you back? What inhibition have you? What restrains you from Christ and His love? Tell me, why do you keep running?”
And then Billy replies, “I had no one, felt no one, believed in nothing. If ever I’d had faith, it was long gone by the time you found me.”
To which Rina says, “You stopped looking, like Peter out on the waves. The moment he took his eyes off of Jesus, doubted His power, His love, and His grace, he began to sink. Cease looking at the storm around you, the water beneath you, the sky above you. Stay your course and focus solely upon the foundation of your faith, the path upon which you step, the hand that you know will always catch you, the eyes which will forever be brimming with love.”
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? We’ve got our theme and our message (which is just the deeper, more detailed version of our theme), so all we’ve got to do is start preaching. Problem solved, right?
Yeah, no. Which is kind of the point of this post, although I guess I’ve gone around the barn to get to the door, haven’t I?
I could easily have a lightning bolt strike Billy and fill him with revelation about salvation (definitely not the strangest thing I’ve written about, is it?) and then just leave my readers with my unfiltered opinion of what I think and believe, right?
Or, I could have Rina’s views, Billy’s opinions, Keaton’s beliefs, and the perspectives of so many other characters contributing to the story. Including differing perspectives (and what comes from them, positive or otherwise) makes my theme so much broader and my message able to impact many more people. My readers are able to see each character’s actions, attitudes, choices, and philosophies, and then understand all sides of the story.
Wow. That’s a really long takeaway, isn’t it? And I’ve basically just circled back to the beginning—which is that I didn’t take the time to plan for the potluck, so most of my characters brought green bean casserole (bleck) and unsweet tea (double bleck). This, the important of differing perspectives, how to develop them, and why they help make characters’ personalities stronger, is what I learned while musing to myself in the shower. Maybe that helps y’all some—I don’t rightly know. I just felt like sharing my wee bit of revelation and making everyone really hungry for biscuits and fried chicken.
Sweet tea, anyone?
By the way, if you’re interested in more concise and helpful articles by people who make sense when they write have experience, then check out these posts about strong characters, proper development, and characterization!
Four Easy Ways to Choose the Most Impactful Character Arc for Your Story
A Message to Writers About Strong Heroines (From a Strong Heroine)
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