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For Riveting Characters, Change the Reader's Point of View

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

October 2011

"We’ve all read that the character has to come to an aha moment in order to change and grow."

We’ve all read that the character has to come to an aha moment in order to change and grow. But in rereading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I realize that the author has to make the reader come to that aha moment inside himself as well. Using Gatsby as an example won’t be a spoiler since we’ve all either had to read it in high school or we’ve seen one of the many films made from this store. (The buzz is that there’s another Great Gatsby being filmed now in Australia starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)

When we first meet the narrator, Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who was educated at Yale and fought in World War l, then came to New York City to learn bond trading, we learn that he thinks of himself as honest and non-judgmental. As a reader, I was willing to accept that. After all, he knew that Jordan Baker had cheated during a golf tournament, but became her boyfriend anyway. When he goes to the city with Tom Buchanan, his cousin Daisy’s husband, and meets Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, the wife of a garage owner, the reaction we see is that Nick gets drunk. But when Nick takes up Jordan’s suggestion to make arrangements for Jay Gatsby to have an affair with Daisy, is this dishonesty or revenge for what Tom is doing to Daisy? When Nick finds out how dishonest Jay Gatsby is, he continues to be his friend because he finds Gatsby’s personality “gorgeous.” Fitzgerald had me bobbing and weaving over my opinion of Nick until the end. When Nick realizes that no one who had partied hard at one of Gatsby’s lavish parties will come to Gatsby’s funeral, not even Daisy who had made love to Gatsby, the reader sees that Nick now is rightly judgmental of these careless and unloving people. He is so disgusted by them that he decides to go back to the Midwest where he imagines is a purer place.

"Daisy Buchanan, now who wouldn’t feel sorry for her?"

Daisy Buchanan, now who wouldn’t feel sorry for her? She’s obviously married a boor, a racist who espouses theories of someone named Goddard from the book The Rise of the Colored Empires, a sexist, a guy she had no interest in. Jordan Baker, the book’s gossip, tells Nick that Daisy had to get numb-drunk before her wedding in order to go through with it. How could she have waited for her dashing lieutenant Gatsby to come back from the war? What if he didn’t make it? In the 20’s when women had so little power, so little ability to amass wealth on her own—she wasn’t athletic like Jordan, nor especially bright, well, what was Daisy to do? Perhaps she wasn’t as silly as she seemed. She wished her daughter to be a fool because the women who lived best were beautiful fools. Perhaps Daisy was only playing the part of a fool to get by. Then I found out that she barely paid attention to her daughter. When I saw how she chucked Jay Gatsby aside after he protected her by claiming that it was he, not Daisy, who drove the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. My heart did an about face. Daisy, helpless, vapid, beautiful and bored Daisy, became a villain to Nick and to me.

Jay Gatsby creates a fraudulent life to win back Daisy from her husband. We know he’s from the get-go, but with such a compelling story, his arms reaching out to the green light from the Buchanan’s dock which represents the love he has for Daisy, that the reader (and Nick’s) view is softened toward him. We know he’s a crook, that he’s come by his money through bootlegging and swindling. His association with the nefarious Wolfshein would have been enough to prove it. (As my mother would say, “Did Wolfshein have to be Jewish?) But because Gatsby breaks the law for love, or at least what he believes to be love, I had sympathy for him as I’m sure all readers do. And when he brought Daisy back from the drive where she ran over Myrtle and Nick finds Gatsby hiding in Tom and Daisy’s bushes, peering into their windows to make sure that Tom didn’t harm Daisy, I am ready to forgive Gatsby for anything. Especially after he sends Nick to check on them and Nick finds the Buchanan’s calmly eating cold fried chicken and reconciling their differences.

"How does a writer change a reader’s point of view of a character?"

How does a writer change a reader’s point of view of a character?

First the writer has to be clear about what the character is like in the first place. Nick is clear from the outset, because he actually tells us what to think of him. But it might be through an action that we learn of a character—we see him stealing a tip off of a table in a restaurant or we see him shinny up a tree to rescue an elderly woman’s cat. We can sometimes be told about the character in other people’s words. For example, Nick tells us all he knows about Gatsby and Nick’s girlfriend, Jordan, tells us all she knows about Daisy. The writer needs to know what the reader’s final aha will be. You need to know how you want the reader to feel about the character at the end. Will the character be unchanged in a reader’s mind like Tom Buchanan is? Will the character become more heroic through some action he takes? Have the reader think he knows the character and continuously surprise him by new actions, new dialogue, new decisions that keep the reader guessing, even to the end. Was Gatsby’s heroism in taking the blame for running down Myrtle to protect Daisy diminished by him not caring about her death, just about how his darling Daisy would fare and whether or not he would be with her?

To keep the reader riveted, keep changing his point of view about the characters!

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/