Sunday Writing Discussion #10: Choosing the Right Point of View

Composing a work of fiction requires a dizzying number of choices. But it is also cool. The writer has total control and responsibility for the entire composition. A basic idea needs to be expanded into a plot sequence, characters must be created to tell the desired story in the best way possible, the setting needs to enhance the overall story, the conflict needs to make everything vibrate with tension, and the tone and theme must create subtle waves that move along the reader’s neural paths to stimulate further thought. So many things to consider. A basic aspect of writing a short story or novel is figuring out the right character to tell the story through and the right point of view to tell the story in.

We all derive our identity through the stories of ourselves. When we tell a personal anecdote to someone else we tell it in the first person point of view. For example:

“When we found our campsite, I pulled the car onto the paved pad. There was only a small clearing for me to set up the tent. The picnic table was near the fire ring. Everything was lush and green. I was so tired but I had to get the tent set up before I could make dinner and go to sleep.”

The first-person point of view expresses the personal point of view of the speaker or author. The pronouns used are I, me, mine, we, us, and our.

Often when people first undergo the metamorphosis into writers, they use the first person point of view. Their stories tend to be fantasies or “movies of the mind” that they transcribe. This is a great place to begin, but as a writer practices and advances their skills they begin to get a feel for all the artistic decisions that go into a composition. The more they write, the more aspects of writing they become aware of and how this influences who will be their point of view character and which point of view should be used.

Initially it is not unexpected that beginning writers create characters who are too powerful, too strong, and too much of a fantasy. These kinds of characters are called Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, who lacking any real flaws, and primarily functions as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author or readers. Mary Sues are usually thought of as characters whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits. They don’t come off as authentic because they feel so one-dimensional. Often these characters kind of overwhelm the stories that they are placed in and subjugate the story to the character. The story must always come first. It is important to think through during the development of a story which characters might be likely to be in that setting, which of those characters might be best positioned to see the action of the story, what the psychological makeup and history of the point of view character might be that could best see and interpret the action of the story in a meaningful way, and what kind of character would be the one that readers could relate to most strongly. Sometimes it is necessary to keep adjusting the characters until the composition feels right. This is one of the really cool parts about writing because as authors we can do this.

Once the writer has a feel for which characters to use, they have to decide what point of view to tell the story in.

First person point of view is the second most prevalent point of view used in fiction. It traditionally is thought of as being more intimate and personal. J.D. Salinger used the first person point of view in his novel The Catcher in the Rye in this very traditional sense and fearless portrayed Holden Caufield in such a way that the book is beloved by many. Holden Caulfield is so authentic within the pages of the book that his story is a example of a coming of age, identity finding story.

This very personal type of story is not the only type of story that can be told through a first person point of view. If a writer thinks about the intimacy that can be established via the first person point of view, consciously uses the strengths of this point of view, and is creative, they can reinforce their themes in unexpected ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is also written in the first person point of view. In this case the story is about Humbert Humbert who becomes obsessed with Dolores Haze. She is twelve years old and when she becomes his stepdaughter, they have a sexual relationship. The first person point of view is disturbing and distancing rather than producing intimacy. Further, the narrator is an unreliable narrator and this compels the reader to analyze his words and be drawn further into the book. The first person point of view is used to brilliant effect to create ambiguities that make the book compelling.

There are limitations to think about before using the first person point of view. If a writer uses the first person point of view the natural expectation that most readers bring to this point of view is that the story is being told by a knowledgeable narrator who is past the events and relaying them after the fact. After years of conversation in which anecdotes are told in this manner, readers will bring this expectation to the text and the author either has to remain within the parameters of this context or clearly and strongly with intent and rationale deviate from this. First person perspective is also difficult in that the story is told from the point of view of only one character who cannot see everything that might influence the story and the narration must stay “in character” to maintain the illusion of the fiction. First person point of view is not as easy to create well crafted fiction in as one might first think.

Third person point of view is the most commonly used point of view. In the third-person point of view material is expressed from the point of view of a detached writer or characters within the story. Third-person pronouns include he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, them, their, and theirs. The third person point of view can be either a limited or omniscient point of view. A limited third person point of view follows the point of view of one character much like a camera on that character’s shoulder. The narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of the chosen single character. An omniscient third person point of view uses an all-knowing narrator who not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character.

The third person point of view is the most flexible point of view to write a piece of fiction in. Limited third person can be quite intimate and personal and allow the reader glimpses into the personality of the narrating character. If the third person limited point of view is chosen, it is very important to chose the most advantageous character to tell the story. The story will not be as intimate as if the story were told from first person point of view and this often implies a slightly less emphasis of characterizations to drive the story. The story may still be character driven but there will be more external action driving the plot rather than internal dialogue. As stated previously, the author needs to pick the right character. The narration still needs to stay within the characterization of that character also. For instance, if the story is about medieval times the limited third person narrator would not compare the speed of an arrow to a airplane because they would not know about airplanes.

Second person point of view is rarely used in fiction. It is used in letters, speeches, and directions. Second-person pronouns include you, your, and yours, and material expressed in the second-person point of view directly addresses the listener or reader.

If for some reason a story feels stuck, sometimes it is a useful exercise to either switch the point of view being used or tell the story from the point of view of a different character within the story. This can jog things and give insights that might help to move the story forward. Also just because a particular character was initially chosen to tell the story or the story started in first person point of view, does not mean that it has to stay the way it was begun. It might be a daunting prospect to completely rewrite a story, but this might be the action that makes the story better.

So many choices to craft a story, so many things to consider, so many bits to the overall composition! It is exhilarating! Have fun writing!

Writing Prompts: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I was thinking about my camera this evening. I am hoping to go snowshoeing one afternoon this weekend and take some pictures so I came up with a set of writing prompts that have to do with either cameras or photographs. Have fun writing!

1. The point of view character buys a camera in an antique shop. They fix it up and try it out. The point of view character discovers that the camera doesn’t take a picture of the person or thing it sees in its lens. A different image appears on the film. What is that image of?

2. The point of view character moves into a new house and takes photographs to post on facebook. They discover that there are gruesome images in the backgrounds of all the photographs. What are these images?

3. A class composite in the hallway of a high school has fading photographs. The point of view character goes back to visit the high school and realizes that all the faded photos are of classmates that have died. Why are the photographs fading?

4. A photographer is a sought out portraitist because they have the ability to make their subjects look better than real life. Where do they derive their power from?

5. A wildlife photographer has the ability to take photos of animals and the animals are then resistant to death. How does this come about? How does the photographer use their ability?

Sunday Writing Discussion #5: Naming Characters

Currently I am writing a story that features a main character who is a mechanic. He works on derelict equipment and scavenges parts from defunct machinery. He is a very solid type of character who then begins to experience something remarkable and this causes him to take extraordinary and very out of character action. I can picture him. He’s a big guy with muscles earned from lifting engines and moving heavy stuff. He’s quiet and clever. The kind of person who is called steady and reliable.

Did I mention that the story is set in the future? A rather dystopic future?

This character’s name has been eluding me. In trying to come up with his name however aspects and details of the story are coming more into focus for me. I am getting a feel for the society that he is a part of. I am envisioning who his parents were and what was important to them– so important that it would influence the naming of their son. This background also influences the character.

On a whole other level, I also have to think about the connotations that a name brings up. This can be an important part of the characterization in a novel. Charles Dickens came up with some of the most memorable names in English literature. The names themselves evoke the essence of the characters. Names like Cornelia Blimber the prim school teacher, Ebenezar Scrooge, Seth Pecksniff the architect and hypocrite, etc. Finding the right name can set who the character is.

If a character is an everyman kind of character, then I try to use names that are not too extraordinary. The list of male names is pretty limited if I am sticking to what are typical names. Popular male names have actually varied very little in the last century. These are names like John, David, Richard, Joseph, Robert, etc. Female names are much more variable. If I am writing a piece set in another time period I google to find out the most popular names of that time period. Jennifer and Ashley actually pretty accurately tells me a woman’s age very frequently and if I know her age from there I can often tell what socio-economic class she was born into.

Readers come to characters with all of this type of information loaded into their prior knowledge, whether they consciously know it or not. This information informs how they interpret a character. The connotations of a name influence the concept of a character that readers build in their imagination.

So if I name a character an unusual name this will have connotations also. For instance if I name a character Thaddeus Thistledown an image springs to mind and it isn’t one of a used car salesman wearing white patent leather shoes. The name actually comes from a tongue twister and I always pictured him as a tall, gangly, elderly man wearing a tweedy three piece suit and wire rim glasses who has a dandelion pouf of marvelous white hair. Why do I picture him as an elderly man? Perhaps because Thaddeus is a name I associate with my great grandfather’s generation and generations before him. Why do I see him with such a headful of white hair? Perhaps because it reminds me of the thistle down that Theophilus Thaddeus Thistledown sifted in the tongue twister.

Even ordinary names have connotations. A book that I like to use to find out the connotations of different names is “The New Baby Name Survey” by Bruce Lansky. To create the book people were surveyed to find out the connotations that they associate with various names. For instance Michael is a common male name. The connotation from the book is: “Like the archangel in the Bible, this Michael is an angel– for the most part. People describe him as a sweet, caring, loyal, and trusting family man. He’s known to be humorous and a good friend. His one downside may be too much ego and not enough patience.” The book talks about celebrities that are associated with the names as well. In this way a writer can know and consciously use the connotations associated with a particular name.

In addition to the connotations of a name, the culture and ethnicity of the character needs to be considered. A woman in India in the Victorian era named Mary would be assumed to be British. If the character is Indian she needs an Indian name such as Madri, Ishani, or Gita. A book I use to find such names is “The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook” by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Names from other cultures also need to be considered for possible connotations that they might bring up outside of their own culture. A friend of mine has been writing a novel and the main character is Senegalese. Because of her ethnicity the character’s formal name is Fatima and she is called Fatou. He has been using the name as a placeholder. While no one in Senegal would envision a fat woman from that name, because the naming conventions are different than in the West, readers in the West may not be able to see beyond the first three letters of the name and envision a character who is not fat.

Naming a character is just one step in creating them. There are other things to consider and the character out of necessity for the story may shift and change over the course of writing the story. It is important also to consider who the character is within the context of the story. Too many characters with similar names can confuse readers.

While it is trite in some ways to say it, names do have power. Power to characterize. A writer can consciously use this power or potentially be at its mercy.

I am still thinking on my mechanic’s name.

Sunday Writing Discussion #4: Which Comes First Character or Plot?

Lately I have been watching on YouTube some of the video segments that were recorded by Martha Alderson, who has been called “the Plot Whisperer.” Her blog where you can find links to this series of YouTube videos is:

In the first of her videos titled “Dramatic Action Plot,” she focuses her discussion on determining a character that the writer wants to write about. The second video in the series furthers this discussion and talks about character flaws. I found this interesting because she is known for discussing plot rather than character development and yet she was advocating starting with a character and developing the plot from there. She talks about that the writer needs to know this character and their goals. In addition the goals cannot simply be goals, but need to be driving passions. So if the character is a mystery detective, it must be that character’s driving ambition to solve the case.

In Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for creating fiction his first step is to write out a one sentence description of the story or novel. This sentence is then expanded into a summary paragraph for the second step. Creating characters is a third step. In many ways he starts with plot and then populates the story.

So which approach is better?

I think both methods have merit. Without good characters a story will fall flat. Plots that are unsatisfying or do not contain all the Aristotlian elements of a story are unsatisfying. In my opinion it depends on the story that an author wants to tell. If the story is to be primarily character driven and have as one of its features a primarily internal plot, then I think that starting with developing a character or characters makes the most sense. If the story is to be primarily plot driven, determining what the plot will be and then creating characters that will best carry out that plot is the way to go.

I have two characters who I began thinking about and working on quite awhile ago. I can close my eyes and envision each of them. I can imagine how they speak and how they would respond to certain events. I am very intrigued by these characters. I think they are compelling and I want to do them justice and put them in captivating novels. The plots for both of these characters out of necessity for who they are as characters– their conflicts, fears, goals, backgrounds, and concerns– need to be action driven, external plots. I am finding it incredibly difficult to write their stories in part because I started with the characters and the stories for them will be not internal plot driven stories. Perhaps as I gain more skill I will be able to create the stories for these characters. The more that I write and think about things, the more I learn.

Another danger in creating the characters first is that the author could create what are called Mary Sues. Mary Sues are so idealized that they never approach feeling authentic and it feels a little like the author is fantasizing through them. Writing stories is not about making idealized versions of oneself who can never be defeated and always come out smiling. On the contrary on some levels it a little sadistic in that the writer has to really put the characters through a certain amount of hell. A story needs conflict and if the writer likes their characters too much, they will shy off of putting the screws to the characters. If the characters are idealized versions of the author, why would any author inflict torment on themselves even in their fantasies?

Starting with the plot also has pitfalls as well. A writer can write out a pretty logical plot with external action scenes that seem to flow consistently. And then they create the characters for the plot and even if they create those characters specifically for that plot, the internal logic of the characters interacting with the pre-planned external plot may require more thinking and changes. Also if the story is too externally driven it may feel like it does not have either an empathetic main character or an emotional center to the story. I think a great deal of science fiction and action thrillers start with plot and are subsequently populated with characters and sometimes the characters are less than authentic.

Again, I think both methods of developing stories have merits and choosing which will fit the writer’s current project makes the most sense. Ultimately in the writing of the story or the novel there will be an interplay between character and plot development and the writer will have to move back and forth and revise things as they go. Both characters and plots are important to make stories work.

Sunday Writing Discussion #3: All in the Details

Nothing slows a piece of fiction down more than having a lengthy character or scene description plunked into a piece. Also having paragraphs of exposition regarding the fictional world can seem necessary to the author, but pull readers out of the story.

Setting the scene and introducing characters is necessary. Further, if the piece is a fantasy or science fiction story the world may be very exotic and the characters unusual and need to be described. So how does one go about doing this?

First, there are ways to set up the story so that character and world descriptions fit in naturally into the story. One of these might be to have a naive character or a character who is exploring and cataloging the new sights that they are witnessing. In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” Harry serves as the naive character who has come to Hogwarts and knows very little about the wizarding world. As he learns so too does the reader. Another example would be J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in which Frodo is the naive character who is leaving the Shire.

The words in fiction should never get in the way of the story. An economy of words and careful placement of those words that are the best ones to do the job should be strived for. If one can make the words in a story do double or triple duty, all the better. Rather than having lengthy descriptions, thinking about those small details that could be slipped in in my opinion can create this kind of smooth writing.

Let me give a couple of examples.

Story start number one:
Her horse snorted and stamped, Morgana pulled the cloak close about her. The wind ruffled the fur lining of her hood tickling her cheek. Duridan rubbed the pommel of his sword and pulled his horse to a stop. Through the blowing snow, he could see the golden light of a fire through the slits of the shuttered windows. Where there should have been laughter coming from the inn, he heard only a sign swinging and rattling in the night. “Your Majesty, I fear we may need to press on.”

Story start number two:
Holding her cloche hat on her head, Ilsa pressed through the crowd. Her heels sank in the soft soil as she rushed past a clown juggling colored balls, a man in a gorilla suit, and six midgets drinking coca-cola. Rupert called after her, “Dearest, it is only for one night. And the lion has no teeth!”

I came up with these two examples off the top of my head. The first could be from a generic fantasy milieu– the cloak, sword, and use of horses sets this up. It is set in a winter setting. One of the characters is royalty and the two characters could be running from something and trying to find shelter. In the second story, the cloche hat was a type of hat worn in the 1920’s. A clown, the gorilla suit, and the midgets all give the idea that perhaps this is set at a circus. The details can set the story without explicitly stating the situation. If I were to write about different establishments and call one a pub and another a saloon, it would get across with those two words that one might be in England and the other in the American west.

I like to write poetry to practice this type of careful word choice. In poetry the words have to convey multiple meanings, have muscle enough to evoke the essence of what the poem is about, and there is no room for extraneous words. As an exercise try to write three versions of a kitchen without explicitly describing the kitchen. For the first one write a poem that evokes the feeling of a kitchen at night. For the second one write the start of a story about two male college flat-mates who are having girls over for dinner. For the third one write the start of a story about a woman who is in culinary school and wishes to be a chef. See how tightly you can write these three versions of a kitchen. All three should be very different. Before you write think about what details would distinguish these three kitchens.

Well-chosen details and the right words can carry description without giving too many words for the reader to trip over.