I’m completely in love with the book that I’m reading at the moment: Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume. Every night I can’t wait to slip under the covers and lose myself in the world she has created. Her writing is fresh, original, truthful and absolutely real.
The magic of this book is that it’s told in the unusual but highly engaging second person, ‘you’. The narrator is a lonely, old man who addresses a dog he has recently adopted. Theirs is one of the most moving relationships I have read in fiction in a long time. I am, of course, a sucker for the human-animal dynamic. Anyway, through this relationship and through this particular point of view, in which our narrator is constantly trying to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of his canine companion, we are given a new insight into the world, something good fiction always does.
One trick this technique achieves is that it allows us to come to know our main character better, to see him from the outside, in a way that we don’t always have the chance to do with first person narrators.
Have a look at this extract from near the beginning of the novel and look at how Sara Baume has characterised her protagonist by making him look at himself – and introduce himself – to his new friend. Think about how you might use it to present character in a fresh and original way in your own writing.
What must I look like through your lonely peephole? You’re only the height of my calf and I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrolled features and iron-filing stubble. When I stand still, I stoop, weighted down by my own lump of fear. When I move, my clodhopper feet and mismeasured legs make me pitch and clump. My callused kneecaps pop in and out of my shredded jeans and my hands flail gracelessly, stupidly. I’ve always struggled with my hands. I’ve never know exactly what to do with them when they’re not being flailed. I’ve a fiendish habit of picking the hard skin encircling each fingernail, drawing slowly down into a bloodless hangnail. When I’m out in the world and moving, I stop myself picking by flailing, and when I stand still I fold my hands fast over my stomach. I knit my fingers in restraint. When I’m alone inside and moving, I stop myself picking by smoking instead.
In certain lights at certain angles, reflecting certain surfaces, I’m an old man. I’m an old man in the windshield of the car and the backside of my soup spoon. I’m an old man at either side of the tall fridge in the grocer’s. Whenever I go to close the curtains or lean in to reach for milk or margarine or forest fruit yoghurt, I’m an old man. My brow curls down to tickle my eyeballs, my teeth are stained ochre, my frown lines are so well gouged they never disappear, not even when I smoke. Although I’m impervious to my own smell, I’m certain I smell old. more must and porridge and piss, suspect, than sugar and apples and soap.
I’m fifty seven. Too old for starting over, too young for giving up…I’m all on my own, like you.
What makes this exercise work?
As writers, we are always looking for a fresh and engaging way to convey our characters to our readers. Finding an interesting angle or lens through which to see them is one of the best ways to do this.
- Consider yourself. Write down three things about your physical self and three things about your character. The might include a habit, like in the extract above when the narrator describes his tendency to pick at the skin around his nails.
- Think of an important relationship in your life: to a child, a best friend, a pot plant, the moon, a goldfish, a kitchen table. The more original the better.
- Add three more items to the list of physical traits you wrote about yourself and to the list of character traits: but this time draw them from the person / thing observing you: what might they pick up on.
- Now write a paragraph using both the second person ‘you’ and the first person ‘I’ to give a description of yourself, both your physical body and your character, as seen by that outside person, animal, object.
- Like Baume, try to be ruthlessly specific in your description: no vague, abstract words.
- Do this exercise for a character in a story you are working on or, if you are staring a new story, create a character using this method.