Tag Archives: Characters

Going Deep

brick-passage
Don’t be afraid to explore the depths of your characters

As in deep point of view. Not necessarily sexy, historical or romantic, but choosing a POV is a crucial part of storytelling. First person, second person, third person. Authors have used all of them to craft unforgettable books.

Many writers enjoy using first person, because they feel like they can dig up all their protagonist’s emotions. For that reason, many readers enjoy stories told in first person. Confession time here: as a reader, I struggle with first person books. Exceptions have been The Martian, by Andy Weir and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

First person isn’t a bad thing! It’s just a matter of personal preference. Like a kid at bedtime, I almost always want to know what the grown-ups are doing when I’m out of the room. Hence, I’m more comfortable reading third person, and a lot more comfortable writing in it. I like the freedom to move from character to character.

Even so, third person has its own pitfalls. I’m making my way through a book by a New York Times best-selling author, written in third person. It makes me want to poke pins in my eyes. Because it is All. Talking. Heads. Every last thought these characters have comes out in dialogue. Everything, including emotion, is on the surface — one of the hazards of writing in this POV.

Enter Deep Point of View

Deep POV, also known as third person limited, is a way to marry the intimacy of first person with the wider scope of third person. The reader is pulled into the head of a character from the first words of a scene, and experiences what it’s like to be that person as the story unfolds. Not just thoughts, but emotions and immediate physical sensations. The rush of first love, the burst of grief, the comforting squeeze of a friend’s hand on your arm. Making readers share those sensations gives them an investment in your story. Maybe even in you as a writer.

Going deep takes some work. For one thing, a writer can’t do it unless she or he knows his characters from the inside out. That means knowing more than their appearance and their basic goal, motivation and conflict. Where did they go to school? How do they view themselves? How do others view them? What was their birth family like? Do they speak formally? Swear a lot, or not at all? What are their wounds? For historical fiction, what are the customs, technology and language of their time and place?

The key to this point of view is that the writer is limited to what the current POV character can observed. (Limited third person, duh.) If you’re in your hero’s head, he cannot observe that the heroine thinks he’s hot. He can be aware when she flirts back at him, and can hear if she suggests going somewhere with less noise. But unless you’ve given him mind-reading powers, he cannot read her thoughts.

Besides, what if her ex is sitting in the corner and she’s trying to make him jealous by flirting with the first attractive man she sees? Mr. Hero doesn’t know this. The reader only finds out when the story moves into the heroine’s POV. (Things like this are why I love writing third person.)

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid phrases such as ‘he thought’, ‘she noticed’, ‘he saw’, ‘she knew’. These place a distance between the story and the reader. Eliminating them will pull the reader in.

Consider the differences in these two examples:

Third person: She noticed a dark-colored splotch next to the building. When she stopped to touch it, her fingers came away sticky. She sniffed and recognized the coppery tang of blood.

Third person limited: A dark-colored splotch next to the building halted her. One touch left her with sticky fingers. She sniffed, then gagged at the coppery tang. Blood.

Ideally, the second passage makes readers share the character’s response to her surroundings. Plus they learn that the smell of blood makes her sick.

The more vivid we can make our writing, the more interesting it is to readers. Interested readers keep turning pages. ‘Nuff said, right?

Till next time,

Ann Stephens

 

 

 

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Revisions, I love them so

…or Surprise! Your characters had something else in mind!

 ImproperCoupleRevisions. How do I love them? Let me count the ways. They’re the writer’s version of the ‘second chance at love’ trope. You know, stories where the hero and heroine had a relationship in the past, broke up, and have met again with fear (he/she will just hurt me again) and loathing (that louse broke up with me for no good reason!). Both parties have sworn never to have anything to do with one another again. Except then that pesky author (me) keeps throwing them together, making them lean on and value one another all over again.

 

Revisions are another chance to fall in love with your characters. Seriously, I’m not the only one who finishes a manuscript and declares, “I’m sick of you people! I want to write about new characters! Go away and never darken my brain again.”

 

Someone somewhere suggested putting the manuscript away for a few months and moving on to other projects, and I heartily wish I could recall whose advice that is. I owe that writer big time.

 

Revisions are where I can get rid of talking heads, remove unneeded exposition, or add more descriptive detail if there’s no strong sense of place in a scene.

 

When I pulled out my most recent completed manuscript after a rest, I found that I really did like the hero and heroine. The baddie had a reason for his actions. Everyone had goals! They had motivations! They even had conflict, although I’m looking for ways to beef that up in the second draft. I hate making my characters hurt, but revisions are just the place to break their hearts into smithereens.

 

I even discovered an unintended theme. I started out writing about the healing power of love and the importance of forgiveness. Those themes are still in the story, but my characters all worked together to create their own idea. Every character in the manuscript is driven to protect his or her family. The hero, the heroine, the villain, even a couple of urchins that showed up in the course of the story all have family members or names or reputations that require his or her protection. In theater, this is sometimes called the spine of a play – a goal that is shared, even if unconsciously, by every character in the piece.

 

This kind of surprise doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to believe that no matter how thoroughly writers develop personalities and backstories, we know our characters better after we’re done with that draft. During the writing of a manuscript, I discover things about my characters I did not know when I started. It’s not a matter of pantsing. I write out biographies for my characters. I write scenes to show how they got their deepest emotional scars. Those won’t appear in the book, but it plumbs their emotions so that I know in my bones how much they hurt.

 

Is your writing an adventure? Do you get excited when a nugget of information reveals itself about your protagonist? Isn’t it fun?

Stages of Character Love

I am shamelessly fickle. My relationships with my main characters go through several stages. The first is infatuation, when this fabulous new person presents him- or herself in my mind, and I’m thinking about all the neat things that he or she could do and be. It’s a rush of excitement and, well, not exactly lust, since we are speaking of fictional entities here — but desire and hope. As in I want to write about these characters and I hope I can sustain their development through an entire book.

The second part of the Infatuation Stage is when I pull out my character worksheet to write down concrete details.  This is one of my favorite parts of writing! Does he have blue eyes to die for or big brown bedroom eyes? Is she tall and lanky or short and curvy? I tend to develop my hero and heroine at the same time, but that’s just me. As long as the writer gets to know the characters intimately, how she does it doesn’t matter.  There are a lot of questions to answer: Who is his best friend or closest confidant? Does she get along with her family? And what do they want more than anything else in the entire universe? Why can’t they get that thing/situation/person? What choices are they willing to make to get their Heart’s Desire?

Of course, this process can lead to dimmed enthusiasm about the characters as I go off into tangents about how their traits are going to affect the choices the characters make.  Must he have his large smelly dog with him all the time? What if she’s allergic? Did they even have allergies in the Victorian era? How did they treat them? And her hobby is needlework? Really? That’s not nearly as exciting as say, sword-fighting. But where would a well-bred female learn to fence? For that matter, where would a not-s0-well bred female learn to fence?

In case you haven’t noticed, I am the kind of person who makes mountains out of molehills.  Fortunately, in the fictional world, there are these nifty things called ‘erasers’. Give me a few minutes and I can come up with a better hobby for her (probably not needlework or sword-fighting), and she won’t be allergic to his dog, either. (Although she may not particularly enjoy the dog’s trail of hair and mud.)

Suppose I get out of the Infatuation Stage and I’m still willing to make a commitment to these characters? Then I have to sit down and really think about what they’re going to do over the course of the manuscript. This is the long haul. I’m going spend hours at a time, for months, with this couple. I will lay awake nights because a scene isn’t quite right, or because their story needs more conflict, or I’ve lost sight of their goals. But I’m in the Commitment Stage, by golly! I will stick it out through multiple drafts!

Sadly, this leads to the Break-Up Stage. By the time I finish writing a book, I am fed up with both the hero and heroine. All I’ve done for weeks is deal with their problems.  (Okay, I invented their problems, but that’s beside the point!) I feel suffocated because their needs are taking up so much of my time and energy. I secretly want to see other characters. For a writer this is the dangerous time of rushed endings. I’ve learned the hard way that the characters must be allowed to finish their own stories out.

At last, at last, the final sentence is written and I can put this couple out of my thoughts for awhile. I can move on, to the next couple that has caught my mind’s eye. And the cycle begins again…