As the playwright Wendy Wasserstein once wrote, “It’s disturbing having sympathy with everyone’s point of view.” She was talking from the point of view of one of her characters, but I imagine that it’s the playwright’s predicament, too. Whereas novelists are very much in the head of their protagonists, playwrights are more likely to be in touch with all of their characters (a good thing), not just get stuck making sure the main character’s experience is believable and interesting. I think of this quotation, from Wasserstein’s play Uncommon Women and Others, a lot when I’m writing–but perhaps not as much as I should.
To wit: I was going back through an outline of a work-in-progress, Not that Girl, and saw this comment from my advisor, the great Tim Wynne-Jones. Next to one of the near-final chapters, I had written something like, “…and [protagonist] Jackie has forgotten about Becky by now,” and Tim commented in the margin, “Jess has, too.” And I thought, ye gods, he was so right about that: what was Becky doing in the story at this point? I kept making her mysteriously absent, so either I needed to cut her or figure out what she brought to the story.
I chose the former and decided that I’d outline the novel from her point of view, identifying what she was thinking and doing at each juncture. Lo and behold, it opened up so many things. Maybe Becky, in watching Jackie drift further from her best friend Mel, would seize the opening and try to become Mel’s best friend, and Jackie would have to deal with those consequences.
And speaking of Mel, maybe I should outline the story from her POV, too–and once I did, I realized that the story was less interesting when she commented cattily on Jackie’s choices and would be more interesting if she were a sort of wide-eyed, I’m-not-going-to-say-anything pleaser-type of critic. That way, when Jackie does things like consider asking a guy out (horrors), it would be Jackie’s own internal gender police that makes her hesitate, and that would make for a more interesting journey. And when outlining the story from Zoe’s point of view, I made Zoe much more interesting, too–less flaunting her older-boyfriended status in everyone’s face and more trying to get her due from friends who ignore her because they feel like she’s transgressed.
So thank you, Wendy Wasserstein and Tim Wynne-Jones. Your encouragement, implicit or explicit, to identify what the characters think and want at all junctures has made for a much better story on these shores. Now I just have to go ahead and write the dang thing!
If anyone of you read this and try it out, or have already tried it, will you weigh in? I’d love to hear about your experience.
"Uncommon Women and Others," one of my favorite plays from high school