This first exercise was to choose a photograph from a stack on the table. I chose an image of a man, young, with a duckbill hat and a cigarette. His eyes were really stunning. The exercise was to write in First Person Perspective. By hand. We were given about five minutes:
“Well, damn.” I said as my jaw slackened and my cigarette dangled from my mouth. I let the smoke drift away as I gathered my thoughts.
It was right there. I sighed, flicked my forgotten cigarette to the ground and pulled my jacket a little closer to my chest. A sudden frigid wind picked up and tried to blow my hat away. My tent was gone. It was going to be a long, chilled night.
I wasn't surprised—it had happened before, which was why I dressed in layers—but it never felt good. My jaw tightened as I noticed my discarded cigarette—one I could no longer replace—had landed angrily in a mud puddle. I caught one last desperate spark of red before it, too, gave up.
The sound of laughter caught my attention and I turned toward the sound. Children. Splashing in mud puddles—one was wearing my spare hat.
I used little details from the photograph—the fact that the subject was wearing at least three layers, his hat, his cigarette.
Then we were asked to write it again in Third Person perspective. I found this easier for me, personally, and caught up to my own narrative because I wasn't worried about where the story was headed, or as many intimate details.
He visibly lost strength, shoulders drooping, losing his grip on the cigarette in his mouth. He sighed and flicked his cigarette to the ground. He pulled his jacket closer just as a gust of wind tried to remove his hat. His eyes turned to the ground to stare at his ruined cigarette which had landed in a nearby mud puddle.
Laughter sounded nearby and his head turned toward the source. Children splashed in mud puddles, giggling. One wore a hat that was too large.
He took a quick step forward, hands tightening into fists at his sides.
A few days later we had another exercise. Free Indirect Style (generally speaking, Third Person with only one narrative consciousness). Two characters. One of them knows a secret that will change their relationship from that point forward. One of the characters (with the secret) is in a position of power. Go. I used a character's name I love (Javid) and one that I stole (Raina). On a subconscious level, I began to choose the story based on those names. I knew it would be about a divorce. We had about seven minutes for this assignment.
“I didn't want to do this here.” Javid said as he dropped a sealed manilla envelope loudly on the table. The corner darkened from grease. Raina looked up from her basket of french fries, one hanging limply from an equally limp mouth.
“Don't do this here.” Raina sat up, pushing the envelope away from her calculated lunch. She pulled herself into a stiff sitting position and motioned to the red plastic stool across from her. Javid ignored it. Raina could feel the couple behind her staring and wondering.
“Sit down,” she asked quietly. A child's random shrill drowned her out. “Please,” she begged.
Javid didn't sit down until he heard the right tone in her voice. He didn't look around or even notice the couple behind them who was now loudly speculating. He loosened the bottom button of his suit jacket and sat reluctantly.
“You need to sign the final document.” Javid said as he reached in to his jacket. Raina's eyes followed his hand; his checkbook was there. He pulled out a pen.
Then we were asked to change the perspective to the other character in the scene; since I had focused a bit more on Raina last time, I turned internally towards Javid. I reversed the way the scenes were written (first paragraph above where Javid spoke, below Raina hears him). It was actually really helpful to try and get inside other character's perspectives. I learned things about these characters that I hadn't planned on.
“I didn't want to do this here.” Raina heard his voice before she heard the envelope drop in front of her. Javid watched as a french fry nearly fell from her mouth. Disgusting.
“Don't do this here.” She sat up and already he could see she was uncomfortable. Her greasy hair and wrinkled t-shirt told him she was not expecting him. She tried to sit up, to look like the woman he loved, but failed. They both knew that woman was gone.
“Sit down,” her voice was a whisper he chose to ignore. “Please.” He smiled; if he couldn't have her back, he'd be satisfied with her ghost.
The red plastic stool was greasy. A discarded napkin was on the floor—too close to his shoes for comfort. He'd sit down only if it made her stop fighting him. He was so tired of fighting her.
He unbuttoned his suit, pausing to take pleasure in the feel of the material. His jacket could have fed Raina french fries for the next five years.
“You need to sign the final document.”
I see plenty of problems with these few scenes (the word “greasy' more than once drives me nuts!), but the the more important thing for me to take away from these exercises is the writing itself. The act of writing and these different techniques. I can honestly say that I had not considered re-writing scenes from a different character's perspective. That could just be me being stubborn, and I'm sure I've done it before—but it wasn't a conscious choice until now.
I'm still not a fan of First Person Perspective as my own writing style but I have a better understanding of why it's important and what it allows me to do as a writer and a reader. It really allows you to get very intimate, very close, to the character. But that comes with a trade—you can't see inside anyone else. You, and the reader, really have to guess at the rest of the literary world around you. It hadn't made me reconsider writing in First Person but I have a better understanding and respect for the style.