by Amy Blumenfeld, author of The Cast
My grandmother, had she been born at a different time and into different circumstances, would have been a lawyer. Instead, she became a legal secretary and would return home to Brooklyn from her office in Manhattan with stories of interesting cases for her children to ponder. Though she certainly had her opinions, she loved a healthy debate. She raised her kids to be independent thinkers, but also compassionate, respectful listeners. Her daughter, my aunt, grew up to become a prosecutor, and her son, my father, a public defender-turned-judge. My aunt then wed another attorney, my brother became a lawyer, and as fate would have it, I married one.
Needless to say, family gatherings have never lacked for lively conversation. There’s a devil’s advocate in every corner, and even the most innocuous questions are answered with a question:
Would you like some ketchup? Why wouldn’t I want some ketchup?
Where did you buy those shoes? Why do you assume I remember?
I suppose one of the benefits of growing up in an environment where Sunday brunches could double as an LSAT prep course is that it taught me to think critically and analyze all sides of an issue. This training has served me well and proven to be especially helpful in writing a book from multiple points of view.
My debut novel The Castis about a group of ninth graders who make a Saturday Night Live-style videotape to cheer up a close friend who is battling cancer. She recovers, and twenty-five years later, they all reunite for a long summer weekend and, of course, nothing goes as planned. One couple faces an unexpected medical crisis and is at odds over how to handle it. Another couple—Orthodox Jews on the cusp of parenthood at age 40—is suddenly unsure about the role religion will play in raising their child. And another character—seemingly living her dream with three beautiful kids, a stately home, and a long-standing marriage—is confronted with a situation that threatens to crumble the carefully scripted life she has built.
When I conceived of the idea for The Cast, I knew it would be a story centered on friendship, but I wanted it to dig deep and address some thought-provoking and potentially divisive subjects.
I’ve always been intrigued by how people who love and respect one another manage to maintain a close relationship if they fundamentally disagree on an important topic. Do they find a middle ground where neither one is satisfied? Does one person give in but spend years percolating with resentment? Do they agree to disagree when there is no clear-cut “correct” answer? If so, how do they move on?
Given that The Cast is written from the alternating perspectives of five characters, I really tried to put myself in each person’s shoes. And to do that, I thought like a lawyer.
I played devil’s advocate.
I made a bulleted list of the arguments supporting the character’s position and then flipped it and used the same approach for the opposing point of view. Interestingly, this helped me to flesh out the characters as a whole. Seeing their arguments presented as a list made me wonder why they were taking that particular stance. What is it about this character’s history, temperament, or personal experiences that makes him/her feel and think this way? In this sense, the character’s opinions became windows into their souls and backstories. And that contributed to making them richer and more fully developed.
My greatest challenge with multiple POVs? Making sure each voice was unique. It wasn’t enough to give someone a thick accent or perpetual sass. The distinctions between the characters had to be subtle, graceful, and implied through their actions and words. It all came back to “show, don’t tell.” I kept reminding myself to narrate less, exhibit more. And if my goal was to create a thought-provoking read, no character could be all good or all bad. I was aiming for grey, not black and white. There could be no absolutes. Each person had to be likable yet flawed. Alluring, but human. And all needed to be relatable and real.
For instance, two characters, Becca and Nolan, face a sudden medical crisis. They have a loving, strong, and happy marriage, but when they are hit with this bombshell they find themselves at polar opposite ends of how to handle it. The disparity is jarring, particularly for a couple whose worst spats had always been of the why-didn’t-you-put-the-juice-back-in-the-fridge ilk. There is no meeting in between when it comes to this health issue: it’s an all or nothing decision. While they both want to find a way to appease the other, they keep returning to their individual truths and have difficulty letting go. The questions they face are the ultimate test of authenticity: How much am I willing to risk in order to stay true to my beliefs? At what point does following my gut become less important than holding on to what I could lose?
Another challenge was spacing and pacing. As with any book, I needed to make sure I didn’t spill out all the information at once. I had to think of the plot like a dripping faucet. I didn’t want all the drama to gush out at once, so the challenge became to keep the revelations and twists on a slow drip, with each droplet packed with enough intrigue to hold the readers’ interest and keep them turning pages. That’s hard enough when there is one narrator, but when you have five POVs with slightly different story lines, it’s a bit more complex. I needed readers to stay interested in each arc andwant to come back to that arc even after getting distracted by the drama of another arc.
Although it was a challenge, I truly enjoyed writing The Cast from multiple POVs. Approaching the book from five first-person perspectives enabled me to get into each character’s mind and heart in a way that I don’t think I could have had I simply narrated the story. These characters—along with their passions, pain, values, and beliefs—became a part of me. They felt real, as real as imaginary friends can be. And just as with real friends, I may not have agreed with everything they thought, said, or did, but, like my grandmother, I listened respectfully and welcomed the open and honest conversation.