A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways.
- The Other character becomes pure character-in-action. In the first version you may know almost nothing the Other one, but your intuition or conscious brain still has to work out what they would be doing and saying, which means working out some of what they think and feel. Mind you, when your storytelling imagination is on form and the scene is falling out of your pen, you may genuinely not need or want to dig into in their psyche. Just as the Viewpoint character can't see into the Other character's head, so you as the writer may well not need to either.
- And then you do need to know more, to write the second version. And how big is the gap between these two characters? Not just in how they see the world, but in what they want of the world and each other, and in how they try to get it? It's the gaps between what two different people want, and the differences in how they try to get what they want, that drives your narrative. Sometimes it becomes obvious that there's just not enough gap to cause enough trouble (many writers talk of "conflict", but I don't think that's very helpful). Other times you realise that the response of the Other was convincing seen from the outside, but doesn't make sense once you've understood more of their inside.
- The way the change of viewpoint also usually leads to a change of voice becomes very clear - sometimes for the first time - to many writers. And, since part of learning to write is about learning to be bad, this also one of the exercises where the less developed writers in the room start to get an idea of just how much more they could learn, and what possibilities are opening up for them.
- In the second version of the scene, your new Other character is one who you already know well from the inside. This version, therefore, becomes an exercise in how you get the reader to understand what a character thinks and feels, purely through gestures, tones of voice, words and so on. And is there a gap between what your new viewpoint character understands and thinks and says, and what we as readers see? In that gap tragic, or comic, or ironic?
- Switching into third person is a good way of realising how an external narrator can get just as close into a character's consciousness, if you use free indirect style (and why wouldn't you?). And as well as being able to move outwards to stuff no character knows, you can, arguably, get closest of all: an external narrator can tell the reader about fears, motivations and drives that the characters themselves don't understand or admit to.
- Moving point of view is startling for writers who have always written with an internal, character-narrator, or in third person but locked to a single viewpoint per scene. They realise how point of view isn't just something they'll be smacked on the wrist for "getting wrong", but a powerful and flexible (read: grownup) technique which they really should have in their toolkit. It's also a small, clear exercise in handling such a move.
I've had students say that it's completely changed how they perceive the scene, and the event, and their main character, and the story; I've had students realise they might have picked the wrong protagonist; I've had students cry, as the original antagonist turned out to be bearing the emotional weight of the scene.
And now I've got a new way of thinking about all this. Back in August, I spent a week teaching a course on Historical Fiction at Lumb Bank, the Yorkshire centre of the Arvon Foundation. My fellow tutor was Manda (M C) Scott, and one of the many brilliant things she said (quoting someone, I think, but I'm afraid I can't remember who) was this: "Every character is the hero of his own story."
In a novel, we all know, the main character/s are our hero/es: this is their story. But the Others? Even in fairy tales antagonists have some rudimentary motivations for getting in the way: misers want gold, older brothers are jealous of Dad's favourite son. And yet even if your project is rather more emotionally nuanced than Snow White, it's still easy to think of the other characters purely in terms of their relationship to your MC. But if you think about the story that these characters tell themselves, it might be very different. Your MC isn't their MC: they are the centre of their own story. Your MC is only part of it. And then there are all those lesser and minor characters - the best friend, the boss, the hat-check girl. What's their story? What kind of hero are they? What - if you want to use the Hollywood cliché - is this hero's journey?
And another thought: most people, most of the time, are trying to behave in accordance with their values: their idea of how they'd like their story to go. They may not manage it - particularly if their values and their feelings are at odds. They may be prevented from behaving as they'd wish ... or at least they may tell themselves or others that they are. You or I might disapprove of the values that underpin what they do, but those values still have some kind of central coherence for them. And much of what your Other characters do to your MC is, in a sense, directed by that wider sense of themselves and their story. What would a story built round them be like? How does that affect your hero's story? How does that affect your project?