Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Observer

Of all the situations, arguably the Observer is the closest of the non-fiction roles to that of the fiction writer. I’ve already written several writing workshops that run a close parallel (Writing journals, the Great “What if?” the Power of Observation)

But this role goes a step further than simple description. Fiction writers should use the role of the Observer to add a reflective component that takes their work deeper, giving it another layer of meaning. For example, I can write a simple description of an apartment flat in the seedier neighborhoods of 1930’s Chicago or I can go further, as Tennessee Williams does with his character Tom in The Glass Menagerie. There, Williams successfully uses the role of the Observer to comment on the setting and the other characters in the play, filtering our experience through the character’s eyes.

As an audience, we see the set. It’s tangible. Right there behind the curtain. The lights come up and we see the drabness, the shabby, second-hand furniture, the fire escape that serves as the exit to the apartment (metaphorically as well as physically).

But Tom begins his soliloquy and suddenly we’re viewing that set in a very different way. Throughout the play our perceptions of the apartment change. It becomes a prison, a cage he has to escape like his father before him. In his role as Observer, he reflects on what he (and we) see and transforms it into a deeper experience.

Observer, take two:

Four people standing on a streetcorner, chatting. An accident occurs in the intersection. They all see it; they’re all witnesses and they all give statements to the police. Yet each of them tells a different story. One focuses on the speed of the two cars, another swears the light was yellow, the person next to him says it was red. The fourth only heard the accident but when he turned around he saw a person of color running away and that must be important.

This is a common phenomenon. The police deal with it every day. None of them are wrong, they all have pieces of the puzzle, yet their stories are different. Their beliefs and values affect their interpretations of what they saw.

Use this. Your characters observe stuff all the time. They see things, they meet people. What does your hero see that your heroine did not (or vice-versa?). What does the villain of your story feel about the event that put another in the role of hero and not him?

This is also a great way to introduce conflict. Let two main characters witness the same event or be in the same physical place, but let their reflections about it be different. In The Glass Menagerie, Tom’s reflections are colored by memory (Williams even calls it a “memory play”) but Amanda’s (Tom’s mother) thoughts reflect the harsh light of reality. As a result, Tom views his sister Laura in a very different way than his mother does. The resulting conflict that uses Laura as the foil for these observations drives the entire play.

So, two ways you can use the non-fiction role of the Observer in your fiction writing: 1) using a character’s reflections and perceptions to influence the reader’s views and/or 2) letting characters observations be in opposition with one another to create conflict. Both are excellent methods for adding deeper levels of meaning to your stories.


Go through an existing manuscript. Find a scene that is simply described. Either as an exercise or as an edit, filter that description through the eyes of one of your characters. Let us share in that person's perceptions and observations about the place.

Play safe!

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