characters have many sides

I've been writing about Jan Sleet, the great detective, for more than forty years. She changed somewhat over the first couple of decades, though she has always dressed well, but she's been pretty much as she is now since 1990, when I started writing A Sane Woman.

But I've been thinking about how we've been seeing her. In A Sane Woman, and in the mystery stories more recently, we've only seen her from the first person point of view of Marshall, her assistant. But now, in Stevie One, we're seeing her from a third person POV (third person limited, technically, showing everything from Stevie's perspective – in the next part we'll be in Jan's own third person limited POV).

This isn't the first time we've seen her from something other than Marshall's point of view. In U-town we mostly saw her from omniscient third person. But this made me think of another question about how we see characters.

Most of A Sane Woman is in third person, but then it switches to Marshall's first person when Jan Sleet shows up. So, not only are we seeing her through Marshall's eyes, but we're seeing her only when Marshall is with her. There are periods of time when they're not together, and all we see then is Marshall wondering what sort of trouble his employer has got herself into now.

In the beginning of U-town, we see her again, but this time not only is it not from Marshall's point of view but it's also without Marshall, and we find that she's very different when he's not with her. She's jumpy and moody and generally unhappy, in fact. Once they are reunited, she immediately gets her eerie self-confidence back. To show that difference, though, we not only have to get out of Marshall's head but we also have to get Marshall out of the picture.

What is Sherlock Holmes like when Watson isn't with him? Watson doesn't know, and therefore he can't show it to us. (Yes, I know there were a couple of Holmes stories in third person or even from Holmes' point of view – just bear with me and pretend those don't exist for a moment.)

I thought of this for two reasons. One is that now in Stevie One we're seeing Jan Sleet without Marshall and she's calm and confident, very different from the first few chapters of U-town. So, we see that she's changed over time. Her self-confidence no longer depends on him. And we see that as other people see it.

When she's walking with Stevie One she takes out her cigarette case, opens it, takes out a cigarette, puts it in her mouth, puts the case away, and takes out a lighter and lights the cigarette. Stevie is very impressed by this dexterity (all of this had to be done one-handed, since Jan's other hand was using her cane). Marshall would have been less impressed, because he would have known that the great detective practices that sort of thing at home in front of a mirror.

So, to see our characters more fully, we have to show them from different points of view (almost impossible if you're in first person, of course) and also in different settings with different people. None of us are the same with everybody, so our characters shouldn't be either.


And there is more of Stevie One to read. This is the end of Part Three. The next part will (I'm fairly sure) be from Jan Sleet's point of view, but after that I think the "one part = one character's POV" scheme may have to change. I think we may be moving around too much for that.

But I could be wrong.

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4 Responses to characters have many sides

  1. Maggie says:

    That’s always been a challenge for me. Not all characters are going to see another character in the same ways; the way each person sees another is colored by their experiences with that person or general impression of that person, whether the impression is a positive or negative one. It’s an interesting thing to think about.

  2. I think of it as filming a scene in a movie. When you’re filming a scene in a room, you have a lot of choices about where to put the camera, which will affect how the audience sees the scene. A lot of options, but you have to choose one or two. No matter what sides of your character you show, others are not going to get shown.

    There seems to be an expectation that YA novels with a female protag (a classification that Stevie One sort of falls into) will have a romance element. Well, Stevie One doesn’t (at least not for her — other characters have a very romantic plot), so we don’t see what she might be like in a courtship or a seduction or a relationship. That’s a conscious decision; I want to show other sides of her for now.

  3. sonje says:

    I haven’t had that much experience with looking at significant characters through different POVs. I think you need a long history with a character in order to pull that off–like you have with Jan Sleet. My detective series is written in first person, but I did take the opportunity mix things up a bit with my 3 Day Novel Contest entry (which was written in third person). My 3DNC entry is set in the same (fictional) city as my detective novels, and there is one character from the detective series (not my main character, but a significan side character) who makes a brief appearance in the 3DNC effort. It was fun getting to have someone else (my 3DNC protag) introduce her to the reader from her own perspective.

    I’ve mentioned before that I intend to set many (if not all) of my adult fiction novels in the same city, so I’m looking forward to mixing the characters about and seeing how they are with different characters and different stories.

  4. Setting all (or most) your stories in the same place is a really good beginning. I remember how cool it was in Marvel Comics in the early days that all the heroes were based in New York City, so they ran into each other from time to time. The DC Comics heroes all lived in different (and fictional) cities.

    Right now, in Stevie One, I’m about to introduce Marshall, Jan Sleet’s assistant, and this is the first time in a looong time that I’ve shown Marshall from anything other than his own first-person POV. I may even describe what he looks like (which I have never done). Probably I won’t, though. :-)

    But I think it’s something to keep in mind even when you don’t show it to the reader, like a writing exercise (“How would Character A react to Character if they ever met?”).

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