This past Thursday, during time I’d scheduled to work on my current novel The Worried Man, I found myself glued to the TV instead. I watched former FBI Director Comey testify about conversations with the President.
When the testimony was done, I flipped between commentators on different channels, then listened to the President's personal lawyer give a rebuttal.
I felt like a slacker until it hit me—I might not be writing, but I was learning a lot about point of view.
Who Has The Most At Stake
A good rule of thumb in fiction is to write from the point of view of the character with the most at stake.
If, for example, an employee is called into the boss' office on Friday at 5 PM to talk about an issue that might get her fired, odds are she has more at stake than the boss.
But it's all a question of perspective.
If the boss is being scrutinized by her supervisor for unfair hiring and firing practices, she may have a lot on the line too.
The stakes of a story or a scene rest on a lot of factors. Going back to the hearing I watched, since we can't know for certain what the facts are in the real life theater of United States politics, let's imagine we’re writing a novel about a fictional President Grump and former FBI Director Spumy.
If President Grump really did or said something that could get him impeached, that’s high stakes for him. That would make watching the Spumy testimony through his eyes compelling.
Grump would anticipate every question, sweat over every answer, and worry about what words would come out of Spumy’s mouth next.
Spumy, on the other hand, has already been fired. That suggests that the stakes for him are pretty low. Using that set up, writing from Grump’s point of view is a no-brainer.
But it’s not hard to shift the scenario if you as the writer want to do that. If our fictional FBI Director Spumy is lying, he could be exposed as a fraud or eventually convicted of perjury.
To add to the imbalance, let's say our fictional president is a lot like Jed Bartlet of the West Wing. Our Bartlet-like Grump would have acted in the best interests of the country at all times, and his confidence that nothing bad would come to light would be well founded. He wouldn’t sweat through the testimony.
In that scenario, Spumy’s point of view is hands down more interesting to the reader because he's the one with the most at stake.
When Everyone’s Risking Something
The best novels–and scenes–are when both the protagonist and antagonist have a lot at stake.
In our example, let’s say Spumy is telling the truth as he sees it. He can still be stressed. His reputation is on the line.
To further raise the stakes, you could create a fictional former FBI director who feels strongly about being seen as truthful and reliable and, to up it even more, who dislikes the spotlight. (This is fiction, remember.)
All of the above would make testifying nerve racking for Spumy.
Similarly, even if Grump did nothing wrong but the way he conducts himself makes everyone think he did, he could still be in hot water. After all, it’s often the appearance of a cover up, not a bad act itself, that gets a politician in trouble.
So our fictional president might believe he did everything right but still worry about impeachment and watch the testimony with his phone on speaker with a direct line to his lawyer. (Perhaps with his hands cuffed behind his back to keep him away from his Twitter account.)
With these fictional characters, I’d write the scene first from one point of view and then the other. The contrast between how the two men see the same event and the same testimony would draw the reader in and make it fascinating to read the same scene twice.
Who's the hero and who's the villain? That's for the reader to decide.