How to See Through Someone Else’s Lens

When writing your first draft author John Steinbeck recommends you “write freely and as rapidly as possible… Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.”

If you stop to edit the chapter you’re working on you’ll get stuck in a perfectionist loop, keeping you from moving forward and breaking your stream of consciousness. If your emphasis is on quality too early you’ll ensure there’s no quantity. The first draft is an marathon not a gymnastics routine. You can’t worrying about being too graceful on your way across the finish line.

Of course, when you do go back to edit, you may realize you’ve inherited a mess. I did when I went back to revise my current work in progress. My story features a narrator and the first person testimonies of four other characters.

I noticed that when the story transitioned from one perspective to another each character sounded too similar. They shared the same technical knowhow, the same literary vernacular, and the same sarcastic tone. They all favored the same phrases. They all knew about the same obscure references, and they all had a nasty habit of relishing in alliteration.

Upon rereading the story I believed my characters’ actions, but not their thoughts. I’d taken the time to rationalize their motives, relate to their problems, and give them conflicting interests, but I hadn’t taken the time to see the world through their unique lenses.

I was still viewing their word through my own personality, which is why all of my characters sounded the like me. In the story’s worst moments the characters sounded like my blog entries, despite their ages, genders, and professions varying from my own.

These Were My Easy Fixes:

Vary the Stock Phrases

I have a handful of favorite phrases I like to shoehorn into my stories and my characters used all of them. One way I fixed this was by keeping track of who got to say what.

People who grew up in the same region got to use the same expressions, as did spouses, and relatives, but their couldn’t be too much overlap between characters with distant backgrounds.

Some idioms had to be exclusive to specific characters, so the reader knew who was talking when.

Professional Adages

One of the narrators in my story is a gardener. She’s the only one who should ever use adages like:

“Gardeners and doctors have a lot in common, we’re always burying the evidence.”

“This community might seem perfect, but every garden’s got some weeds.”

Or “Do I drink? I’m as thirsty as willow tree.”

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Professional Jargon

One of my leads is a lawyer. Legal jargon enters into his narrations even when he’s far outside of the courtroom.

• He asks for “continuances” when he gets up to go to the bathroom.

• He calls peaceful encounters with annoying characters “Equitable.”

  • He challenges the “grounds” of any argument even when he’s talking about couch surfing.

The trick with professional jargon is recognizing how much of it has permeated our lingo because of television. Those of us who watch a lot of detective, medical, and legal dramas might speak talk like someone in those fields from time to time, but for the sake of fiction we should leave that jargon to the characters most qualified to use it.

Vary the Descriptive Words your Characters Prefer

In my story several characters encounter entities with reflective features. Upon my first reading I realized each of my narrators described the creature’s faces as “chrome.” In my current edit I realized only one character should prefer that word, the others need to use words like: metallic, platinum, and silver.

If you’re working with multiple narrators. Keep a thesaurus handy.

Expand Your Capacity for Empathy

When writing with multiple narrators those easy fixes will only do so much. You’ll need to consider who each of the characters are fundamentally. If you’re like me you don’t like writing character biographies before you get started, instead you like to meet your cast throughout the story. The trouble with this strategy is that you have to do a lot of your characterization while you’re editing, after you know where all of the main players are going. Then you can go back and build things into their personalities that sell their behavior down the line.

An easy way to understand characters’ motivations is to make them think like you the author. The problem is this will only work for one character. Everyone else needs to feel different, sometimes drastically so just it’s easier to tell them apart.

This is where you’ll need to broaden your capacity for empathy.

The trick is to empathize with someone you disagree with, someone whose beliefs you struggle to understand. You need to dig beneath stereotypes and pose the best version of an argument you’d otherwise disagree with. You have to forget about some of the things you know and learn somethings you don’t. You don’t want a character’s voice to sound like a terrible impression or your straw man will topple upon close examination. You want their opinions to feel genuine.

In his book Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want author Nicholas Epley writes, “If the only thing necessary to understanding the minds of others was attending to the same things, then others would be open books. But… the problem of perspective is only the beginning. Two people can look at the very same event and interpret it differently, because they view it through their own lenses of knowledge, experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and intentions.”

These are the differences you need to draw out and highlight in all of your characters.

Closing Thoughts

I’m not a good person, not by default. I can be fickle, judgmental, and distrustful of everyone.  What allows me to function as a decent person is the gap between my thoughts and my actions. This is one truth I believe is universal for all of us: we do our best to be better than who we are.

This is something I keep in mind whenever I write in the first person. Let them share their fears with the reader. Honesty will make the characters more identifiable than empty positive sentiment.

No matter what kind of person your narrator is let them share things with the audience they’d never tell the people occupying their own world. Let them be flawed, insecure, aimless, and envious. Once you know what your hero is trying to hold back, you’ll have a solid foundation to build on.

•••

This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

7 thoughts on “How to See Through Someone Else’s Lens”

  1. The trick I learned to endowing your characters with their singular perspectives — which includes all the dialogue they speak and actions they take — is to boil them down to their five identifiable traits (ideally a non-clichéd grouping). That limited (but, if you’ve chosen wisely, versatile) collection of characteristics governs their worldview/behavior, and ensures that their words/actions are as unique as a fingerprint. If you’re interested in examples, I’ve deconstructed 24‘s Jack Bauer, House of CardsFrank Underwood, Rambo, the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger interpretations of the Joker, and Annalise Keating of How to Get Away with Murder, among others, on my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Evelyn! It takes a lot of practice to be able to deconstruct characters to their essential traits, and even more trial-and-error to use the technique to create characters of your own, but it is hands-down the best, most efficient characterization tool available to the fiction writer (courtesy David Freeman). Drew doesn’t care for writing long biographies and neither do I; one doesn’t need to, really, as long as you know your characters’ three to five governing attributes — all of their dialogue and actions flow from there.

        Like

  2. This is exactly what I am going through. Have a story with a narrator and four other people. I am trying to make their grammar different from each other. But since I write in an odd way myself, its been tough to get them to sound different from each other. Thanks for the hints.

    Liked by 1 person

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