Children have a very strong sense of fairness. Any parent reading this will know that at the slightest sign of injustice, you’ll hear a plaintive “That’s not fair!” Maybe that’s why the small injustices of our childhood linger long in our memories.
These injustices also make great fodder for writing, and I use them in my creative writing workshops to explore how writing a story from different viewpoints changes that story, because it is seen through the eyes of the teller. I’ve created an exercise based on an incident in my own life, and I call it The Spring Roll Incident.
(Pic: Wikimedia Commons)
Here are the facts of the story. My aunt and uncle were coming to stay the night, but my parents had been invited to a party they couldn’t get out of. My parents went to the party and my aunt and uncle took my younger sisters for a Chinese.
I had to stay home and man the phones, because my father was a vet and these were the days before mobile phones. My aunt and uncle had promised to get me a spring roll, but they arrived home without one. They informed me that the kitchen had been closed when they had enquired.
These are the facts, or as close as I can get to them. But in my telling of it, this is a tale of gross injustice, and I mourned that lost spring roll for a ridiculously long time. My sense of outrage was fuelled by the discovery that my aunt had said, ‘Sure, she’ll be grand.’ A couple of years ago, I decided finally to vent some of that injustice and it occurred to me to write about the incident from the viewpoint of my aunt.
I imagined all the organising she had to do before she left: giving instructions to the childminder for the care of her babies, finishing off her to do list in the printing firm she ran with her husband. There may even have been a row with said husband as she went out the door. And there was no promise of fun adult company at the other end. There was little room in her head to for lost spring rolls.
I found the process of writing from my aunt’s viewpoint therapeutic, so I decided to turn the story into a two part exercise. For the first part, I ask the students to choose to be one of the players in the springroll incident.
Some have chosen to be me, which is both brave and disconcerting. One chose to be the restaurant manager who said the kitchen was closed. And another particularly inventive student chose to be the spring roll.
For the second part of the exercise, I invite students to think of a small but significant injustice from their own childhoods. They come up with tales of teachers who withheld prizes because ‘their parents could afford to buy them sweets,’ and parents who punished without apparent cause. I ask them to retell the incident from the viewpoint of the person who carried out the injustice. They’re surprised to find that well=worn facts suddenly take on a new sheen.
Knowing what view your character holds of the main events of the story, and of the other characters, makes for a well-rounded story. If a strand of the plot is unclear to you, try telling it through the viewpoint of a character other than your central character. This technique can also be effective if you’re having difficulty figuring out what your central character’s motives are.
Feel free to share injustices from your own own lives, retold from the viewpoint of the ‘perpetrator.’