When last we saw our intrepid main character, Joe, his creator (the writer) was using Joe’s POV to use Setting to reveal Character. For those of you playing along at home, it went something like this:
Joe walked down the crowded sidewalk, eyeing up possible targets from among the multitude of Christmas shoppers. Some of them carried bags, but in his experience those bags were too easily turned into weapons at the slightest provocation. If he was going to pretend to slip on the icy sidewalk and grope a woman on the way down, it was best to go after the ones with boxes. Their hands were too full to do much until he had already grabbed himself a good handful. Heck, if he did it just right, he might be able to use his legs as he fell to trip one of these women and get her to fall on top of him. Then she’d be apologizing for pressing herself up against him instead of screaming bloody murder. Joe liked the sound of that. And the young blonde coming toward him with the oversized hatbox wrapped in emerald green paper looked like just the one to start with.
Joe liked Christmas. It was his favorite time of year.
Point being, just about every single descriptive item ties in to something Joe was thinking, planning, or wanting. Used efficiently, scenery can paint a lot of different kinds of pictures, both internal and external. There’s a lot packed into a pretty small space, but I think it’s pretty much self-explanatory.
Today we’re going to use this same basic technique, but expand it to include backstory so as to paint an even fuller picture of Joe.
Now, the vast majority of comments about last week’s post used the word “creepy” when describing Joe. Let’s follow him home after his escapades with the holiday shoppers and see what we find there. (I have no idea what to expect; I’m making this up as I go along.)
Home at last, Joe walked in the front door, dipping his head so as not to meet the unblinking gazes of the photographic portraits of his twin sister, his mother, his grandmother, and the fourteen other aunts and female cousins who lined the long front hallway. If he just didn’t meet their eyes, he—
“Joe!” screamed his ancient mother from her bedroom, and immediately fear stabbed at him like the Devil’s own pitchfork. Eighty-three years old and the woman still terrified him. He shook his head in disgust at his spineless reaction, but he quickened his pace just the same.
Opening Mother’s bedroom door, he was instantly hit by the stench of urine. Again. He looked over his shoulder, wondering where his twin sister, Maria, was. It was her night to care for Mother, her night to—
“Bring me my hair brush!” shrieked Mother, running one pruned hand through her still naturally black curls. “My hair is getting all tangled and I WANT MY BRUSH!”
Joe eyed the brush on the rickety night-table next to the bed. It was mostly silver, with gold inlay; very old and very heavy. It was probably the most valuable thing anyone in their family had ever owned, passed from one generation to the next by the women in the family, and it looked ridiculously out of place on the peeling faux wood night-table where it sat. It was within easy reach if Mother would just reach out her hand. But she wouldn’t do it. She never did.
“Joe!” Mother shrieked again. It seemed like all she ever did anymore was shriek. But he couldn’t make himself move. How could he? She had beaten him with that hairbrush so many times that he was terrified to be in the same room with it. He was terrified of the word ‘hair-brush.’ And why not: he had lost count of the number of times he had been woken up as a teenager by his mother pulling his blanket off his bed. She would then wait just long enough for him to realize that he had gotten an erection in his sleep before she started beating him with that silver and gold heirloom.
She said it was for his own good. She said that if he didn’t want to end up a dirty, stinking, filthy pig of a rapist like his father, he had to control himself. Even in his sleep. Yes, even in his sleep.
Joe appreciated what Mother was trying to do for him; he really did. He didn’t want to be like the man who had created him in a fit of violence and then disappeared forever. He wanted to grow up to be better. Stronger, mentally and spiritually. But as he would curl up into a ball on top of his bare mattress and try to endure his righteous punishment, he inevitably caught sight of his twin sister, Maria, framed in the doorway of his dingy bedroom. A golden light from the hallway streamed in from behind her and silhouetted her like an angel sent from heaven, and her head would bob up and down in time to Mother’s strokes as the brush rose and fell. When the beating was over Maria would simply turn, without a word, and disappear down the hall and into her own brightly painted bedroom.
Not before Joe saw it, though. Not before Joe saw the smile that proved the sheer, unadulterated pleasure she took in watching him being beaten. Joe had never understood that pleasure. She was a child of rape the same way he was. She was a child of the very same rape, so why did she act like she blamed him for it?
“Joe!” shrieked Mother yet again, snapping him out of his haze of memories. She pointed toward the faux wood night-table and repeated, softly, coldly, not yelling anymore, “Bring. Me. My. Hair brush.”
Well, I had no idea what we were going to find at Joe’s house once we got inside, but having looked around (through his eyes), I’ve got to say this much: I don’t necessarily like Joe any more than I did last week when we first met him, but I understand him a little better and can say with certainty, Wow, it sucks to be Joe! Kinda makes you want to throw momma from the train. Then again, we know she was raped at least once; who knows what else she’s been through. Abuse runs through generations like water through a trash-filled gutter.
Looking at things a little more clinically, the scene really hinges on a small handful of items of description. First, the scenery in the opening paragraph sets things in motion: Home at last, Joe walked in the front door, dipping his head so as not to meet the unblinking gazes of the photographic portraits of his twin sister, his mother, his grandmother, and the fourteen other aunts and female cousins who lined the long front hallway. If he didn’t meet their eyes, he—
Clearly this is not a normal household. Seventeen photos hanging in the hallway, all of them women? And if poor Joe can’t even make eye contact with their pictures, what kind of relationship must he have the real people?
We get all that from the scenery and from Joe’s reaction to it.
Then we come to the hairbrush. It’s just a hair brush, right? Most every household has at least one.
Just sitting on the night-table all by itself, yes, it would be just another hair brush. But throw in a dash of POV and suddenly that hair brush becomes a gateway to a lot of valuable information. A writer who wasn’t aware of Vernor’s Law (see David’s post from two Mondays ago, or mine from last Saturday, where I referred you back to David’s post from two Mondays ago) might have just given us a quick info-dump to tell us that Joe was the product of a rape and his twisted mother tried to beat his sexuality out of him. But by now I know that you all know that info-dumps are cumbersome and unartful. So we work these details into the story by using every day items around the house as gateways, opening doors to places the characters would really rather not go (which is where all the good stuff is usually hiding).
There are some other details, bits of scenery and such that give more information or help move the story forward (contrasting the night-table with the hair brush is a much more natural way to bring it into the scene than just stating that it’s sitting there, and gives me an excuse to slip in the detail about how long the brush has been in the family; or contrasting Joe’s dingy bedroom with Maria’s brightly painted room to contrast their relative worth in their mother’s eyes; etc.), but between last week’s essay and this one, I’m confident in your ability to spot how those details are woven in. The thing I want you to focus on is how vital POV is to bringing meaning to these details, so they can serve you (as an author) in creating a richer, fuller story, instead of just ticking them off as one more set of items on a laundry list of stuff that serves no purpose other than letting the reader know what the room looks like.
(BTW, portions of this post were brought to you courtesy of Sarah, who insisted last week that she “needed narrative closure dammit.” Thank you, Sarah. 😉 )