A Matter of Perspective

9/27/2016 09:19:00 AM Lexie Dunne 4 Comments

So I don't do a lot of "how to write" posts on this blog. I used to in my full-fandom days: I have another blog somewhere on the internet full of tips and tricks about the mechanics of writing. Today that feels to me like unmitigated swagger and bravado. The audacity of youth. I don't know if it's due to age or due to getting a publishing contract, but almost overnight I went from Knowing What I Was Talking About to being completely unable to answer the inevitable question that gets asked at every panel that I attend:

What advice would you give to a writer?

My mind goes completely blank at this question. Empty. Nada. Zilch. One time I watched a tumbleweed cross the vast canyon my brain had become, with appropriately twangy music accompanying it. Kind of entertaining, honestly, but not helpful when I'm up on stage in front of people and they're expecting me to say something smart. We put you up there for a reason! You must squeeze SOMETHING of value from your brain that isn't a pun. (me: "…you really must not read my blog.")

My issue with this question is I always have such trite, unhelpful answers: "Put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keys." "Write." "Read stuff you like. Try to write like that, if you want." Not every tip is going to work for every writer, and as somebody with hangups because of writing "reference" books I read in junior high and high school, I'm paranoid about being the inadvertent cause of somebody else's hangups. And yes, I'm aware that this is ridiculous: everybody is responsible for handling their own hangups. But it's a fear.

But something neat happened a few months back, and it made for a cool example I can use when talking about craft! So today, I'm writing about my favorite, favorite, favorite thing:

Character and Perspective

To preface this, a little about me: I have a pretty heavy arts background. I studied video production and German in college, have been writing since I was eleven, and if I'm bored, I'm usually reading fiction or playing in Photoshop. My day job1 is technical writing and editing at a firm that makes custom **mumble mumble** for some pretty awesome clients. As a result, I work primarily with engineers, who have such a different thought process in approach to things that I'm every day amazed by their brains.

Take my coworker, K. He's soft-spoken, always in a plaid shirt, jeans, and a gray hoodie. I work with him on electronics manuals. A few months ago, he came back to chat with my cubicle-mate and spotted something on my desk.

Here's my desk, by the way. I've scrubbed it of anything company-related, but it still paints a pretty clear picture that I am a giant nerd. The postcards are from friends all over the world, Darth Tater has traveled with me for 11 years, and all of the knickknacks mean something to me.

I have an old medium-format Ansco camera on my desk that a lot of the engineers enjoy poking at (it's a really cheap old box camera). K, however, immediately reaches for my insulator. His eyes light up. "Do you know how this works?" he asks.

"No, actually. All I know is that it's an insulator? For the top of power lines?"

K, normally a little antisocial and shy, comes to life as he explains how the insulator works, how the wires were wrapped around them to avoid touching the wood. He darts over to my whiteboard and draws the modern-day insulators used on the giant power lines, explaining the changes made and why they happened. There are more diagrams that follow. In the space of five minutes, I learn more about the little glass insulator sitting on my desk than I knew beforehand because K looked at a thing on a desk and saw the engineering marvels of it, and wanted to share about something he loved.

Now let me tell you about this insulator.

My grandpa worked for a few telecommunications companies out in California stringing up and fixing power lines.2 And as a result, he collected used insulators, whole milk crates full of them, in all colors and shapes. After he passed away, my grandma planned to get rid of them, so I asked if I could have one as a keepsake.

I picked one because, honestly, it resembles Darth Vader's helmet. We used to watch Star Wars at my grandparents' because they had the VHS tape and my brother adored it, and that's where my love for it began, but that didn't occur to me when I selected my insulator. I liked the color, I liked the fact that it was shaped like Darth Vader's helmet, I liked that it's labeled New York because I'd just moved back from Long Island, and it was a neat memento. And it's just a cool thing. My dad told me insulators were originally made at the end of the day in glass factories with whatever glass was leftover. They'd start out clear, but the sun would pick out the pigments of color in the glass and they usually wound up changing all different colors. Mine is a very pretty shade of green, but it's also got old bits of newspapers stuck to it, and dirt from my grandparents' house clustered in little pieces inside. I can see bubbles and imperfections both on the surface and inside the glass.

Nowadays, you can find these insulators at flea markets and antique stores, or repurposed into chandeliers and lighting fixtures. Mine sits on my desk among postcards from all over the world, geeky bobble-heads, and the really cool puzzle box my best friend bought me from Budapest. Little mementos that mean the world to me. The insulator is one of my favorite possessions. I look at it and I remember my grandfather. K looks at it and sees a technical marvel from bygone days. It's the same little shaped piece of glass, but it means very different things to each of us.

And that's something I feel that writers need to bring to their writing when tackling perspective. To really sell a character, we always say that we have to see the world from their eyes, but oftentimes I see this advice couched in broad terms. What are the philosophies? What does the character believe in? Favorite food? How does so and so feel about this other character?

All of these are good things to know! And you probably should know them at some point in your writing process, even if you may not necessarily use them. But the moments that make characters, for me, are the insulator moments. Those are the moments in the book that can absolutely dazzle. A character might look at something and see exactly the same thing I do, which I'll connect to because: samesies! Or they might look at an object and see something I would never consider, and now I'm intrigued and I've learned something about that character.

How and what a character chooses to focus on is important, especially with multiple points of view. For a while, I followed a serialized story that split every new installment in two: first you would see the scene from Character A and then from Character B. And in the hands of anybody but the best writer, this could get tedious. As it did with this story! If Character A picked up a cup of coffee in her version of the scene, Character B also noted the coffee. Character A's facial expressions were later remarked upon by Character B whenever Character A thought something significant. Sure, each character had individual thoughts, but they noticed the same things for the same reasons. Their names could have easily been swapped around and I wouldn't have noticed. And that's definitely a problem, unless you like reading the same scene twice with slightly different thoughts attached to the dialogue. If you do, have at it! Enjoy! But for me, like I said: tedious.

New POV must offer new, different perspective. That's what keeps books fresh and exciting, and makes characters really stand out. So if you're struggling with every single one of your POV characters sounding the same or same-ish, look for the insulators in their lives. I promise you, they're there, and those details will help you out.3

Anyway, that was just a fun little work example that occurred to me and I thought I would share it. Does anybody have, um, specific writing questions? I can either help out or point you in the direction of things people much smarter than me have said. If you need writing advice, really, though, here goes: Write. Put your butt in the chair. Read. Learn. Write more. Repeat. Boom.

Stay sexy!

PS - My grandpa, by the way. He was such a Dude. I miss him every day.

1 Yes it's true: writing doesn't pay the bills yet. Well, it pays, like, two bills. Small ones.

2 I grew up knowing that his job title was "Contractor" and because of that, I thought contractors were people that climbed the telephone poles and fixed them (boy, was I in for a surprise when I got older).

3 Provided they don't bog down the story, but when to include detail and when not to is a whooooooooole different blog post for another day. Which I will totally talk about if people want me to.


  1. I loved this Lexie. Perspective taking is something that I value in not only good writing, but also I think it is key to empathy and understanding in our lives. Thanks for expressing this so clearly!

  2. And has anyone ever told you that your grandpa looks like Ringo Starr? Guess that means he is a Rock Star!!

  3. Hi I just wanted to ask you a question. Have you ever used writing services, like this https://academicsavers.com/? My point is that I'm terrible writer, but from time to time I need to make writing tasks. So my main question is if it is possible to train myself to write good or I just need to focus on the writing services?

  4. You know that your brain has always astounded me! How could such an esoteric, strangely wonderful brain have come about? If I were ever to get pregnant again I think that I would binge the entire time on snickers and hot fudge sundaes just to see if I could get another one like you!


Please keep it PG. My mom reads this blog.