Friday, November 18, 2016

Is The Wrong Character Telling Your Story?

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Have you considered the possibility that your story is being told by the wrong character?

Let's say, in your story, there's a house on fire. Not a small, flickering flame either. A fireball of destruction, licking away at the old timbers, popping and snapping as it turns the family residence to ash. And let's say, for example's sake, you have three vital characters in this scene.

Tell me then, which character is best positioned to tell this story?

The boy across the street watching the tragedy unfold.

The fireman just outside on the lawn.

Or the young mother inside the house looking frantically for her two children.

The young mother, yes? Closest to the action, nearest to the danger. Her life and the lives of her littles are at risk. This burning house, this story--it's hers to tell.

Or is it? Nine times out of ten I'd choose to tell this story from the perspective of the young mother, but a case could be made for watching the scene unfold through the eyes of either the boy or the fireman.

To make that possible, we need to ask ourselves some 'What If' questions.

What if the boy is the one who started the fire? What if he did it on purpose? What if he started the fire on accident but finds that he likes the feeling of destroying someone else's property? What if this is the start of something devious in a child? If it is, then this story, this burning house might actually be his story to tell.

Or. What if this house is just one in a string of several arsonist attacks the fireman has responded to in this neighborhood? What if a message has been scrawled to him on the front door? What if this specific fireman is the only one who can unravel what's really going on in the small town? If he is, then this story might well be his.

We could go on and on, couldn't we? Asking questions that force us to consider every option on the table. And the options are countless. Perhaps after asking yourself a series of 'What If' questions, you decide that this story would be best served if viewed through the eyes of multiple characters. Or perhaps you decide you've added too many characters to the scene. Maybe the house burns without a fireman nearby to help.

Who knows?

The point is that the questions we ask ourselves about our story, serve to make it better. And when it comes to zeroing in on the perfect narrator, it's important that we take the time to ask ourselves a slew of questions. Not every set of questions will lead to superior scenarios or to motivations that you'll choose to incorporate into your story, but it's an exercise that, among other positives, might illuminate the perfect narrator for your tale.

Let's do something a little different in the comments section today, alright?

Pick a character from our example, either the boy or the fireman, and I want you to convince me that the burning house is their story to tell. You can convince me however you like, but perhaps using 'What If' questions, as I did, will get your brain and your fingers moving.


  1. I've been asking this question of my main character lately. Are they really the one who should be telling this story? I think it's important to figure out what kind of story you're trying to tell. What kind of story can you tell that you couldn't with another character from your cast? I think sometimes people get caught up in the clothes that a story wears, all of the exciting stuff. But what is the heart of your story? For instance, Marvel's newer installment into the MCU, Captain America: Civil War, is about the characters who are supposed to be a team, falling apart. But the heart of the story is Steve's relationship with Bucky. Take that out and the story falls apart.


  2. I must say I first thought, the boy! I just could see so much intrigue there. The boy, would be young (like ten). He would be really curious, as boys are. You would experience the fire in a unique way, one that would make you in awe of it. But then he would hear the mother's screams. This might frighten him. But he would still be entranced, especially as he watched the fireman work to rescue her. He'd think, "I want to be like that when I grow up, a hero rescuing people." And then you'd get to experience the fireman doing his work, as he tries to save the mother. But then the boy witnesses something horrible. He watches the house fall, he hears the last screams of the mother, and he knows that his playmates are dead. Why did he not think of them before in his fascination? Slowly his curiosity is replaced by a horrid feeling he's never experience before... from his experiences, you could see everything, and experience so many emotions and thoughts, that would all be more reall and horrific coming form the perspective of a child.

    My first novel (that is almost done!) I rewrote like 3 times before I figured out who was telling the story. First it was told in first person from the MC's perspective. But that wasn't working for her personality. Then I tried third person. But that wasn't working either... and then I tried telling it from her younger brother's side. It's still her story, but he's telling it. And that worked really, really well!

    1. I like the idea of the brother telling her story! I also have an idea (though I doubt I will ever actually write it) for a story where a woman's life goes down hill and she ends up giving up her son, but it is all told by the man who adopts her son.

    2. oooh, I love that idea!!! Sounds sad.. but telling it from the man's perspective would add hope to the story :D

  3. The boy across the street IS one of the children the mother is searching for. Earlier that night, he snuck out to go fishing in the nearby lake. He caught three fish and is trying to decide how to justify them to his mom in the morning when he finally realizes that the firetrucks he saw drive by earlier are at his house. Standing across the street, three bass dripping on the pavement, he watches as his world goes down in smoke.

  4. Wow. I don't think my two cents will even compare to your ideas, Keturah and Bookishqueen, but I'll add it anyway. I immediately thought the fireman could be the one telling the story. It's his job to protect property and human life, and yet the kids are trapped inside, and the mother--upon arriving home from work--breaks past him to find the children. He sees that it's hopeless; the house is completely engulfed in flames, and any moment now it will collapse. Just as he decides to give up on putting out the fire and charge in to rescue the family instead, the roof caves in, and the entire structure crumbles. He is ordered to stand back with the other firefighters, and as the blistering heat lashes across him, he realizes that he failed, that a mother and her children died because he couldn't do his job. He looks across the street and sees the boy watching, wide-eyed. This makes the fireman feel even worse.

  5. The fireman tells this story.

    As he extinguishes the flames of his ex-girlfriend's house, he doesn't know how to feel. When they broke up in college, he moved on and eventually got married; but now, it's been six months since his wife died of cancer.

    He had heard that his ex-girlfriend had gotten married and had children, but it's still surreal to see her standing on the front lawn with a toddler in each arm.

    A week later, he reads in the paper that her husband was killed overseas in the army.

    And now, as he grieves his wife and watches his ex-girlfriend's life fall apart, maybe it's time for something new. New healing.

    So what does that look like?

  6. The boy watched, across the street, as his life crumbled into ashes like the house.
    He knew Marie was in there. He could hear her mother's cries as she searched frantically for the girl.
    Marie. He had known her since they were five years old. And he had been starting to feel more than friendship for her. He had to go and find her, but he was frozen. Paralyzed. He tells his body to move, to run across the street and search for her like her mother, but it won't move. He can't do anything. It's like he's trapped in a nightmare.
    And still he stands there. Frozen.

  7. I instantly saw the boy as the protagonist, but it's really interesting how differently everyone sees these three characters!

    He watches in horror as the house collapses, sending sparks flying up into the darkness.

    The fire was meant for him. And had he returned a few minutes before, the attack would have succeeded.

    The family that sheltered the boy is dead now--because of him. He shouldn't have ignored the warnings. Shouldn't have endangered them by staying.

    Why does it always have to end like this?

    His eyes prickle with tears as he turns and flees into the forest.

  8. I'm just gonna go all out on this one with ideas....

    What if the boy just discovered he has control over fire and accidentally set the fire when he couldn't keep his power in check? How does he feel about that?

    What if the boy knows exactly who caused this fire--a supposed friend of his, perhaps? Someone nefarious whom he must now confront? Himself, because he was put up to it by someone else? Because he was forced, and had no choice?

    What if the fireman is actually a criminal who set this fire to cover up for a major heist he just pulled off across town? But what if now, hearing the frantic mother, he feels terrible for what he's done and realizes that a life of crime isn't for him? Will he go in and save her and her children or let them suffer because of his own selfish actions?

  9. I've wondered about this sometimes, but I mostly write one POV; so it wouldn't always be a very easy thing to see if the story would be more emotionally charged through another perspective. Though, it would be interesting to play around with writing from a different perspective than people might expect...