Getting to Know You: POV Lessons from Jonathan Lethem

rejaneJonathan Lethem once said in an interview that he wrote early drafts of Motherless Brooklyn, a first-person novel from the POV of a character with Tourette’s, in third person. The interviewee was shocked. And in disbelief. But Lethem insisted he wrote the whole darn thing from several perspectives, knowing full well he would return to the first-person.

I heard that interview while I was stuck with my own novel Re Jane, also a first-person narrative. My protagonist Jane moved through scenes like a robot. Everything she observed was reported, with due diligence, but with none of the delicious stains of a strong, compelling narrative voice. “I don’t know what she’s thinking,” a writing professor once, crushingly, told me. “Maybe this book should be told in the third person.” (For what it’s worth: my very first drafts of the novel featured a sassy-pants narrator who simply knew too much and had nowhere else to grow. Perhaps her new-found reserve was an over-correction.)

Jane was not the only one with problems. Other, if minor, characters were also too 2D, too heavy-handed, “too much of a caricature.” They were that way despite my doing everything they tell you to do: I drew up character dossiers, I rewrote and re-polished pages, then I walked away from them—for days, for years. Still no dice.

I’m a lot lazier than Jonathan Lethem, so I took the lite-version of his advice. I took a troublesome scene—when Jane is getting interviewed to be an au pair—and rewrote it from the points of view of the 3 other characters in the room. As I began to write (long-hand, to somehow mimic the feel of writing in the characters’ diaries), I thought of all the trees that had given up their lives for this fruitless exercise.

But then something funny happened. I got stumped on Jane’s future boss’ word choice. I didn’t know if Beth would use the word “like.” Her nine-year-old daughter certainly sprinkles it all over her speech. But Beth is a professor of Women’s Studies who grew up in Western Mass and whose dad was also a professor. She has high diction, to say the least, and she finds the word particularly irksome because it perpetuates stereotypes of ditzy girls and she feels it’s a regression of everything the feminist movement has worked for. Yet Beth also yearns to connect with her daughter…in whatever way possible. So I found myself also using the word in Beth’s dialogue in moments where she is trying to be hip to her daughter…which only highlights how horribly awkward she sounds. In short: Beth is trying too hard, something I didn’t fully realize in the early drafts of the novel.

I was also making discoveries about Jane by writing through these other characters’ eyes. Beth, Ed, and Devon all described Jane—the way she looked, how she sounded, how she carried herself—in a way that she could never do about herself. When I switched back to writing the scene in first person, I found I had a larger sense of who she and everyone else in that room was. What I wrote next wasn’t perfect (and would be later subject to yet more rewrites from agents and editors), but it was rounder and fuller than its predecessors.

We don’t all have to be as diligent as Jonathan Lethem and write an entire novel three-ways. But when stumped, switching POVs in scenes can be a useful way to develop all the characters that appear in our novels.

Other exercises to consider when stumped in the head of a character:

  • Write a diary entry from a character’s POV.
  • Have the character describe her 8th birthday party (or lack thereof). Her 16th. (Advice I learned from my Novel Incubator instructors Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders. )
  • Peer into her fridge and document the contents.





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