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A Character’s POV = A Character’s Truth

Who you see depends on your POV!

Each Wednesday at 3:00 I drive a loved one to see his therapist.* During the 45-minute appointment, I sit in the waiting area and afterward, depending on the season, I drive this loved one to swim practice or soccer practice or to the grocery store to pick up a snickerdoodle or a pizza bagel for a snack.

After each session I do not ask the following questions:
1. So … what’d you guys talk about?
2. So … was the appointment helpful and if so, why?
3. So … does your therapist think I am, generally, a good mom?

The question I do ask: “So … Pizza bagel or snickerdoodle?”

But Holy Freud, Batman! I am DYING to know what has been said–about ME–in those 45 minutes. I want to hear how my loved one interprets my actions, my words, my blunders, and my love for him. I want to know how he misunderstands me and with whom the therapist sides. I want to know how I am being portrayed. How closely my truth aligns with my loved one’s truth. The ways that my loved one’s perspective differs from mine. Whether this paid professional thinks I’m a train-wreck.

Why doesn’t the therapist ask to hear my side of the story?

We all tend to believe that our point of view is the truest truth there is. But if I’m going to act like a grownup, I have to let go of the rightness of my version of truth and make room for the co-existing truth of this loved one. His point of view is just as valid as mine. Just as true too.

Have you seen Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film, Rashomon? If not, check it out. If you haven’t seen it recently, rewatch it from the point of view of a writer studying POV in fiction. It offers a fascinating example of the relationship between POV, perspective, motive and truth.

Here’s the nutshell: In Rashomon, the story of a rape and a murder are recounted by four witnesses. As you might imagine, the four accounts vary wildly: Was the sex consensual or was it rape? Was the man murdered or did he die by suicide? And for crying out loud, whodunit? Whose truth is true?

While some viewers might feel frustrated by the ambiguity and truthiness of each character’s version of the crime, we writers likely find the film’s ambiguity delicious. The variety in points of view sparks questions about each character’s values, biases, secrets, motives and desires. As we see how one character interpret words, actions and events so differently from another character, we are reminded that truth truly is relative.

Story opens our eyes to the possibility that other valid points of view exist. Story reminds us to recognize that others’ truths are as true to them as our own truths are to us. These days, everyone’s so determined to be so dang right all the time. I wonder if the United States would feel more united if everyone were willing to read stories with a simple goal: to see and experience another person’s truth. Imagine the good our stories could do. Imagine a sudden, frenzied desire to hear others’ voices and perspectives. In case that happens, I guess we better make sure there are enough stories to go around. In other words, let’s keep writing.

Thinking about the stories I have read or listened to over the past year, I realized I have devoured a surprising amount of memoir: Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and currently, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened. I don’t tend toward memoir, and I didn’t intentionally go searching for stories of race, gender, class, socio-economics or politics. I just wanted a good story. And in the case of Sherman Alexie, I just wanted to listen to him read his story. Because I love him. Not as much as I love my husband, but close.

While I was mainly in search of a good story, I got much more through these memoirs. And at some point along the path of each of these stories, I cried. When one’s head is cracked open to another human’s authentic truth, it hurts. And when something hurts, we cry. And when we cry, chances are good that we will internalize the story, tucking it away as eye-opening evidence that other people’s truths are valuable and worthy. And when we have that evidence, our defensive and fearful hearts soften … even when we worry a loved one’s in a therapy session saying weird things about us.

How can we use our own stories as heart softeners? By creating characters with differing points of view and perspectives. How do we make sure our characters’ points of view are defined, discrete and true? I try to consider questions such as these:

  • What drives this character and how does that desire affect her POV?
  • How has the character’s world view been molded by her truth and how has her truth been formed by her world view?
  • How does the character’s motive in a particular scene (and in the whole story) inform her POV?
  • How do a character’s secrets, fears and vulnerabilities affect her perspective?
  • What’s at stake for the character, and how does this affect what she thinks, believes and reveals?
  • How reliable is the narrator and how does this degree of reliability contribute to the story and to the reader’s experience?

Those questions provide me with some food for thought as I experiment with my characters’ POV. Maybe they will help you too. Meanwhile, it’s Wednesday, and I’m off to the grocery store. After allowing me to share these personal details with WU’ers, my loved one deserves a snickerdoodle and a pizza bagel.

Your turn! What work of memoir or fiction has revealed a POV that has softened your heart? Look at your own WIP; how is the POV of one of your characters impacted by bias, desire, motive or secrets? How might your story offer a perspective that might soften the heart of a reader?

Thanks, all, for sharing!

* The loved one approved the contents of this post. But don’t try to figure out who it is.

Photo found on Flickr’s Purple Slog.

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.

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