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Posted by Priscilla on August 24, 2013

My cousin, Anna, came to my home last weekend. Sometime in the hours of visiting, she began to reminisce about her hometown.

Pineville, a small country town hanging like a cedilla six miles off the south end of Charlotte, North Carolina, had but one industry:  the cotton mill. Its population was separated, as populations often are, by class and by race. The upper class? The mill owner, the doctor (both white), and their families. Everyone else, with the exception of the owners of the town drug store and the town gas station, worked at the mill.

And then there were the African –Americans. They picked cotton. They cleaned houses. They cooked meals.

Resentments were rampant in Pineville.

Resentments were rampant in Pineville, Anna said. Children of mill workers resented the children of mill owner and doctor. They resented their privilege, their cars, their horses, and their books. Doctor’s daughters resented them right back for resenting in the first place. Were the children of the cotton pickers resentful?  How could Anna have ever known, for black children and white children did not mix in that small southern town in the early 1960’s.

They followed their elders.  As the only medical game in town, the doctor treated both whites and blacks, but the black patients entered the clinic through the back door. The large Charlotte-Mecklenburg High School was a beautiful sight when it opened as a regional high school, but no black student played on the green football field, no black student checked books out of the library.

I spent large chunks of time in Pineville during childhood and adolescence, but I was an outsider to Pineville, to North Carolina, and to the United States.  As an outsider, I saw neither the separations nor the resentments. I walked around town unaware that there were multiple societies surrounding me. Sure, I knew Murray cooked the meals I ate, while her daughter cleaned the rooms, but that was no different from Ishikawa San who lived with us as a member of our family.

As an outsider, I walked up the dusty, hot Main Street unaware of antipathies, glad only to reach the Deal’s house where I could be assured of a cool drink and homemade cheesecake. As an outsider, I sat on the front steps breathing in the pungent fragrance of the boxwoods, never dreaming that the man cutting the lawn might begrudge my ease.

Because I moved through Pineville as an outsider, I never shared the perspective of those who grew up there, who lived in the small Southern town to their last day. My perspective was always other. In that sense, it was always protected, always naïve. I never felt hated, never felt I had to hate back.

What does this mean for the writer?

Every character the writer creates, like every person, has a particular perspective from which he acts and talks. Perspective is bone-deep knowledge. Identifying the particular knowledge is step one. Asking how the character came to acquire that perspective, that knowledge is step two. Step three is becoming aware of how that knowledge affects the character and his story.

It may be true, as writing gurus say, that there are only ten different plots in the whole world.  What makes a story unique, then, is not the plot, but the perspective.  What is your understanding of life? What is your interpretation of the human condition? Now, ask the same questions of your characters and your narrator.

What do you think?


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