When you’re ready to do character thoughts with sarcasm, you know you don’t need to think about POV any more.
At the end of this post I’ve done a bulleted list to show you what you need to do to POV like a boss, so you don’t have to wade through my rambling, if compelling explanation.
Here’s a jump for the TL;DR version.
I’m constantly trying to convince my authors to stop thinking about POV.
Something has happened amongst all you self-taught writers (and even some of the qualified ones, whatever that means) to convince you that for every story you write you have to take a conscious decision about POV, and think about it all the time.
The least egregious consequence of this is that the story slavishly follows one character at a time…
The worst consequences come when the author can’t stop himself from constantly reminding the reader whose POV is currently in focus…
This might sound a little strong, but I think I’m expected to be controversial where possible.
I’ve been told there’s this elusive quality called “clickbait” and I have to track it like a good little snarkhunter, but all sarcasm aside (for at least the next couple of sentences), conscious POV usually results in poor style.
Conscious POV – which is when the author consciously chooses to limit the reader’s experiences to those of one character at a time – is a gimmick.
Like 1st person narrative, present tense or “unreliable narrator” it’s a form of exoticism that an author should certainly learn how to use, and then employ occasionally, with care, for powerful effect.
You may have heard me make this claim before, and the more I examine the question, the more true I think it is.
3rd/past/omni is the narrative voice of fairy tales. It’s the narrative voice of Homer and Virgil.
It’s the narrative voice of preschool and early learning (although some authors of these ‘readers’ make the bizarre error of using the present tense to ‘make it easier.’)
My theory is that they are confusing learning to read with learning a foreign language.
It is the default narrative voice for thousands of years of written and oral storytelling. That sort of thing has long term consequences.
It means that any other narrative voice is exotic – if even mildly. So the choice of another narrative voice should come with other conscious choices.
In reality, I always encourage new writers to use the narrative voice that comes naturally to them.
The great writers – the really experienced ones, whose work will be remembered long after they’re dead – know that you either choose a different narrative voice because it will make the story stronger, or because they want the story to be bounded or limited, in an unusual way.
But one of the ultimate aims of the writer – a primary reason why I describe my exercises for writers as writer’s Kung Fu – is to pass unnoticed. The writer who succeeds in truly immersing the reader in his story does so by drawing attention to the story, not to himself.
You don’t want the reader to think “what a great writer” until she has finished the book. How to stay out of the way of the story should be your constant study; any time where you use an exotic narrative voice, you will draw attention to yourself, and to your technique.
It is possible to sidestep the whole issue of POV.
Narrow or strict POV is a device whose purpose is to limit the flow of information to the reader, which contains its own justification.
Usually, withholding information from the reader is a great way to annoy the reader, especially if you plan to spring it on the reader just before the climax, as a means of artificially raising the stakes.
But if you’ve withheld information because the main character had no way of knowing it, and the reader has got used to knowing only what the main character knows, then the reader will swallow your clumsy plotting without complaint.
That’s the theory in any case. (I managed to keep off the sarcasm for several paragraphs there!)
Sidestepping the issue of POV is as simple as just deciding what you intend to reveal, and what you don’t intend to reveal.
That’s definitely an oversimplification, right? Not really.
Most of the time, when telling a story, you’re recounting a series of events that happen to, are influenced by, and have consequences for, some people (characters).
To the observer, to a third party, those consequences may be shown. But the observer can also infer, deduce, intuit or, often, empathize those consequences: if the hero’s wife is murdered, you hardly need mention that the hero feels grief.
The third party is the reader.
I go to a lot of trouble to explain to writers that a work of fiction is an act of communication between two people – the author and the reader. But the principal conceit of fiction is that the reader is a third party, an observer.
In some fiction traditions, this goes as far as the writer imagining that he is telling the story to a character, and that if a reader comes along, this is coincidental.
But you should be aware that this is a conceit. A narrative device that ensures that writer and reader are on the same wavelength (a figure of speech which, to touch the mask, is a means of ensuring that you and I are sharing the same cultural tradition).
If you have read my blog before, or you have read my Editor’s Guide to Writing Fiction, you will be used to my vaunting of editor and writer Emma Darwin, and you may already have noticed that I’m working my way towards repeating a lesson I’ve taught elsewhere. Emma took the French lit. crit. category of pensée indirecte libre and evolved it into Free Indirect POV.
Free Indirect is when you relate a character’s point of view without saying so. Without having a convention to show whose POV it is.
To do so, you have to be a little more relaxed about what the reader is, or is not aware of. It works best if you have the self-discipline to keep to one main character per story, so that you don’t have to keep signposting the POV.
The ultimate aim of every author should always be to bring the reader to a point that is stronger than the trust required for so-called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The point is one of willing complicity in the pretense.
How can you make a reader complicit?
By showing the reader that they are complicit. Jane Austen does it by sharing a joke with the reader at a character’s expense, right at the start of the book.
You might need a little more practice before you can get to that point. But once a character is well enough established, once the reader has got to know them well, the reader will start to have genuine expectations of the character.
To get to this point, however, you have to have shown how the character behaves. You have to have placed them in a number of situations that will have revealed their values, foibles, caprices.
It’s no good telling the reader that the character is needlessly finicky about trivialities, f’rinstance, you have to show enough incidents where this behavior creates obstacles or problems for the story, the character, or the people around them.
Once you know that the reader shares your opinion of the character, you have complicity.
The best measure of whether the complicity is sufficient is to see if you think you can get away with making a sarcastic observation about a character. If it seems okay to you, and your Beta Readers swallow it, then you’re probably doing okay.
Here’s an example from a soon-to-be-published series I’m working on right now. Esper, the character in question, has been established as meek but principled. Full of self-doubt, but with occasional flashes of resolve.
She’s also young, and the memory of being a childhood outcast – poor and a little nerdy – still smarts. She’s just gotten hold of a tablet computer…
It was an OmniWalker Tudor, last year’s most popular high-end model—not that Esper had followed such trends, or quietly envied the Harmony Bay scientists’ children who carried them.
Under normal circumstances, when editing, I would have flagged ‘not that’ as chatty – breaking the narrative register – and suggested something a little more formal.
But this is a point of complicity between author and reader, and therefore exactly the right time to break the normal narrative register to make a colloquial observation to the reader.
If you’re anything like me, and anything like most writers, you want your book finished. Now this is going to sound topsy-turvey, but one of the most effective ways of making your book shorter, of making it less about word count and more about the overall strength of your story, is to make use of backstory.
When I read reviews and talk to readers, among the most common complaints is that the book is full of background information that gets in the way of the story. In fact, a lot of readers will skip over the backstory as soon as they spot it. You probably already do this yourself.
As an editor, I’m constantly asking my writers whether they forgot to cut out a paragraph of character notes, because they have conscientiously written the important details of a character’s life-story into the first or second chapter.
Or they forgot to cut out a paragraph of story world notes, because the book opens with a lengthy summary of all the events leading up to the events of the story.
By writing all this stuff into your manuscript, you’re giving yourself a lot of extra writing to do.
But surely you’re also making the story world richer?
Surely you’re also making the character more rounded, deeper, more believable?
Indeed, surely by giving the reader all this information, it makes it so much easier for the reader to see why the character behaves the way he does; to see why the world, society or culture the book is set in is arranged as it is?
Of course you want the reader to find the story world rich, real and truthful. Of course you want the reader to find the characters rounded, deep, and a product of their rich and detailed past. And backstory is exactly the right way to do it.
However, if your manuscript includes all the backstory, then all you’re doing is bloating the book with redundant detail. Not just unnecessary, but redundant. The backstory doesn’t need to be there, because the purpose you think it serves is already being served.
And it’s being served by the backstory.
You’re right to use backstory. But including it in the manuscript just makes the job of writing it take longer, and fills the book up with details that the reader will feel he already knows, and will skip over.
Even worse than that, reader was looking forward to discovering what sort of person the main character was, through the process of reading the story, and you just revealed it all in a big block of backstory.
Worse still, your explanation of how the main character came to be avaricious and riddled with self doubt looks clichéd and unimaginative. Your explanation of how the society of the book came to venerate eunuchs looks clumsy and unconvincing.
If you’d just kept quiet about it, the reader would have loved the mystery, or imagined something better than you could have.
There is a right way to use backstory. It’s simple, and powerful, and will make your stories stronger and more compelling and easier to write.
I wanted to introduce a secondary character to my WIP. This secondary character is going to die. Someone has to at a particular point in the story, and its her.
I don’t approve of redshirting, as I have explained elsewhere, so in my work, if someone has to die, first they have to be someone.
I introduced the character casually. She was a lesser participant in a multi-way conversation earlier in the book, so to better fix the character in the reader’s memory, I had the main character delegate an essential task to her.
Someone had to do that task, it couldn’t be the main character, so it’s her. This way, the main character has a couple of interactions with her which also means I can show the reader how the main character feels about her. This will increase the impact of her death, later on.
But, as I started working my way towards preparing the scene where this poor young woman would have to die, I began to realize that she would have to take no less than three poor decisions, in order to put herself at risk, and have to choose the wrong person to trust at the crucial moment.
With all the work I had done on the character up to there, I couldn’t see a way of making this seem believable.
Now I hold myself (and my authors, actually) up to a very high standard when it comes to a believable course of events.
It has to be inevitable. Inevitability is difficult to pin down in fiction – it’s not as hit or miss as the physics equations that prove that an asteroid is going to strike the earth. It’s a lot vaguer, but I have a reliable test for it:
Even if the reader did not see it coming, after it happens, the reader has to think: Oh yes. That was bound to happen, sooner or later.
With my young woman, her death just didn’t seem that way. The reader, and I, didn’t know enough about her to be able to say for sure whether she might not have escaped or avoided the situation, even if by accident.
So I decided to deepen the character by giving her a backstory. I used my preferred technique. It is absurdly effective.
I have a stock character who never appears in any of my stories. He doesn’t have a name, and in fact, sometimes he is a she. I call him the Secret Service Recruitment Officer.
His job is simple. He has to interview important people from the past of any potential new recruit, to find out if they are suitable for the job. His special talent is his easygoing nature, that puts people at their ease, and gets them talking.
I have him go and visit all sorts of people from the character’s past. Siblings. Schoolteachers. Ex-comrades and ex-spouse. Coworkers. Drinking buddies. Parole officers. Parents.
He gets them talking, and then he listens, nodding and smiling here and there, occasionally prompting them to go a little deeper. And they talk. They all talk. Sometimes for a long time.
Sometimes he has to interrupt them to tell them that he’s found out all he needs to know. But he’s always gentle and polite when he does.
There’s one crucial feature to this technique:
I don’t write any of it down.
I play out the scene consciously, in my imagination. I articulate every word of the conversation – sometimes I catch myself doing it aloud. Which is fine. If people know you’re a writer.
This way I find out everything I could possibly want to know about the character. Usually, somewhere in there, there’s a detail – an event, a characteristic, an experience – from the character’s past that will give me what I need.
In this case, among other things, I found out that she ran away from her boarding school aged 11, and tried to get to India, alone. She got as far as Turkey before turning back. In all, the trip took her nearly 2 years. The school hushed it up.
That part was complicated and a little far-fetched. Her parents were in the colonial service in India, and she was supposed to stay at the school during the winter and spring breaks.
But you see, it doesn’t matter that it was far-fetched, because the reader is never going to know.
You don’t have to use a Secret Service Recruitment Officer. Sometimes I use a favorite TV detective (Morse and Columbo are very effective, I find). Sometimes I make the rounds in person.
What I’m doing is building up backstory for the character, so that I know her. I know her truth. I know what she would do.
And because I’m looking for someone who would make those bad decisions, who would be reckless, who would assume that whatever happens she can find her own way home… that is exactly what I find.
When it comes to worldbuilding, I call on a different member of staff. This one does have a name. His name is Reg, and Reg is a Loss Adjuster for the largest insurance firm in the universe.
He’s ancient, profoundly cynical, infinitely patient and bottomlessly curious. When I really need to know if my story world will stand up to scrutiny, Reg and I go out into the world, and he asks questions about how it all fits together.
If we meet anyone, they get a patient, polite, third degree. Whatever we see, whatever we do, is scrutinized and studied until Reg is satisfied that it is able to serve its intended purpose.
To work with Reg, generally I take a long walk in the real world. So again, I write nothing down. But any world that looks real, and true, through Reg’s eyes, will stand up to any scrutiny.
And Reg will keep watching, over my shoulder, as I step into new scenes, to ensure that everything fits with everything else. To ensure that it’s all possible.
You see, backstory used to ensure that you, the author, know all the details of your character’s past. Because you know them, the character’s behavior will always be consistent with them.
And a result of that consistency, the reader will perceive, dimly, that behind the character’s actions, there is past that informs and explains them. The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. That was obvious all along.
Backstory will ensure that you, the author, know all the details of the workings of your story world – whether its the Bronx in 1973 or one of the Icy Moons of Jupiter.
Because you know them, the world will always be internally consistent. Everything will be only where it can, or must, be. So much so, in fact, that will a little sparse description, you will convey enough to the reader that he will imagine exactly the same setting as you do.
The reader will perceive, dimly, that behind all the action in the foreground, there is a whole world supporting it. Behind the hotdog stand, there’s a whole supply-chain economy.
Behind the interplanetary probe, there’s a whole pyramid of logistics – that you won’t have to describe in detail, not because you don’t know what it is, but because you do.
The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. I could see that.
Of course, you can write down your backstory. If you’re planning an epic or a lengthy series, it might help your sanity to have a database or card-index.
It’ll help you to avoid continuity errors and retcons. But as you get more experienced, I hope you’ll abandon the crutch of written backstory, and keep it all as what you know about your characters and their world.
In the end, however you go about creating or discovering the backstory, the bottom line is this:
If you know the backstory, your book will be the stronger for it. Your characters will be more compelling, your world more believable.
If you keep the backstory to yourself, it will be easier and quicker to write, and your reader won’t lose patience, or skip or ignore whole pages at a time.
But even more than that, the reader will discover the world like exploring a new landscape, and discover the characters like making new friends.
It will be a source of joy and excitement, and most of all, of reader satisfaction.Continue reading
This is an article about a very famous book. See if you can identify it.
It’s a complex story of politics and war, but although there are several factions, most of them align pretty clearly on the side of Good or the side of Evil.
Since the story is complex, there are several main characters, of whom the most important is a King without a kingdom, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself and reclaim his title.
The secondary heroes include a pair of brothers, both of whom try, but only one of whom has the strength of character to resist evil and be a powerful force for good. There is a kindly old King whose daughter is another hero, and who rides to war against his wishes.
Other major characters include great wizards who battle in dark towers, antidiluvian horrors in deep chasms, and the Kings, Queens and Princelings of Godlike Elder Races, whose time has passed and who cling to their old ways.
It is, in fact, a very traditional story, inspired by the Norse, English and Welsh sagas, but there are odd flashes of Christian symbolism, and many people see in it parallels with several of the major events of the first half of the twentieth century.
In fact, this story reveals and exposes the profound truth about how characters function in the process of both telling and reading a story – the way in which the story is mediated through the characters.
If you haven’t identified the story, its because I have described it through its heroes, rather than through its central characters. Through its main characters, rather than the characters that the reader follows through the events of the story.
In many ways, this classic fantasy epic is about what most heroic fantasy is about: discovering that the adult world is not what we thought it was as children.
As children, we thought that the adult world was peopled by tall, high, elegant and all knowing near-gods. We thought that they were commanding and powerful. We thought ourselves small in stature and they tall.
Growing up, those of us who achieve maturity realize that these all-knowing all powerful Gods do not, and never did, exist. Our parents are only a little less clueless than we are, and most of us catch them up – some of us become wiser or more knowledgeable than our parents. Some of us become richer, some of us become more powerful.
But many can’t quite shake the impression that once upon a time there was a world where the grownups really did know everything. Where the ancients know more than we ever could. Where the Aztecs built spaceships and the Egyptians conquered death.
In the book in question, the central characters, around whom all these momentous events take place, literally look up at everyone around them, because they are Hobbits.
It’s actually remarkably common, especially in great books, that the character that the author thinks is going to be the main character is, through the drafting process, gradually pushed into the periphery, as the author discovers that there is another character who better represents what the author wants the story to show.
Tolkien’s education, however, gives him another option. Knowing so much about the ancient sagas, he uses them as a landscape – recognizing rightly that people love hearing about fragments and elements of the ancient sagas, but that the kind of heroes they describe are not the kind of heroes he needs to tell the story he wants to tell.
He wants a story about ordinary young people discovering the vastness of the world beyond their doorstep. And the best way to do this is to paint an enormous cyclorama, where there is so much detail that you could never communicate all of it to the reader, but in any case don’t want to. Because this is not a story about what heroes do, but about what they are.
By making his main characters Hobbits – who in accordance with the central motif of Bilbo’s story, don’t know what they are themselves capable of – he makes the likes of Aragorn, Faramir and Eowyn into secondary and largely symbolic characters.
Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn can famously be read two ways – obviously it’s about Aragorn hiding his true nature, but it’s also about the way that as children we take the adult world at completely false face value.
Ultimately, LOTR shows the Hobbits discovering themselves, and growing (in the case of Merry and Pippin literally) as a result of their experiences. Do the heroes grow? Eowyn… maybe. Aragorn? Nope. Faramir? Nope. Boromir… ha! Gandalf – pull the other one! Gandalf and Saruman are your two Grandfathers. The one you think you know and the one you know you don’t. The friendly one and the stern one.
I’ve already written about how Robert Louis Stevenson uses vanilla central characters as a means of connecting with bigger, more dramatic secondary characters.
Tolkien’s technique is similar, but more complex in both aim and execution. Recognizing that the true purpose of storytelling is to educate while entertaining, he’s also well aware of a generation of literature for young boys dominated by the work of G A Henty and his ilk, which taught the boys that they should wish to emulate and become heroes in the classical sense – and fight and die for dominance and acquisition.
This might seem like a very cynical recasting on my part of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, but I’m well aware that I’m looking at it through 21st century eyes. And today’s writers could still learn plenty from Henty, even if they perhaps ought not give it to their sons to read!
Tolkien’s work – much of which, remember, was written while his son was at war (in North Africa?) – is a definite and conscious move away from this, presenting the young men going to war as naïve and immature, through the Hobbits.
But most importantly, the fact that the Hobbits will never grow tall means that they literally can’t become like the heroes of the story – Aragorn and Faramir are men, Gandalf is Maia, Legolas is an Elf; this separation by race is a clear message to the reader: the grand, dramatic, tragic heroes are in the past.
Hobbits are allowed, encouraged even, to remain ordinary. And those that are touched by that world of classical heroes, the Bilbos and the Frodos, eventually have to pass into the West.
The lessons for those who are learning to become writers is that in the greatest books, characters are serving a purpose beyond entertaining or inspiring the reader – in fact, the reader’s experience of the characters is often profoundly different from the purpose that they ultimately serve.
I think this is revealed by the recent movies of Tolkien’s work. The adaptations were made for an audience for whom war, although it dominates the TV and online news; although it features in the movies and TV dramas, is no longer a central aspect of the lives of the majority.
Very few “developed” countries have conscription, and war as a profession is a minority profession. This has made it possible to see LOTR as an adventure, and has also driven the near necessity of moving Tolkien’s shadowpuppet heroes in front of the semitransparent cyclorama that shrouds them in the books, and thrusting them into the center of the action.
Today, people want to see those sexy heroes close up. And modern audiences want the Arwens and Tauriels too – understandably.
Indeed you could argue that the war in Jackson’s LOTR films is deliberately overshadowed by individual heroics.
What I’m hoping to show here, as in the previous article about characters, is that the best stories are not built around characters that have been carefully preconcieved for their appeal. Tolkien constructed his characters to fulfill specific roles in a story structured around his central intent.
Nor, indeed, are the best stories conceived as a thrill ride for some compelling or attractive characters. Tolkien constructed his story to fulfill the purpose of his central intent.
The absense of female heroes in Tolkien’s stories – just like the need to invent them in the movies, is understandable because Tolkien’s intent is to “retire” the boy’s adventure heroes and classical heroes who had been used to inspire earlier generations to go to war.
He wants to show that not only can ordinary people (*cough* the smallest people) be courageous and heroic, but that they are often called upon to be so; and that they should be able, enabled, helped, to remain ordinary.
Nicholas Kahler, author and the business brain of Narrative Path, will always ask at this point: how can an author use this insight to improve his writing?
Writers often tell me that it is in talking to me, or other editors, or other writers, about their work, that they discover how their characters are playing this high level role, of representing a key component of their message. Often, when thinking this way about characters, we can give them labels that indicate their archetypes – hero, mother, everyman, warrior, activist, student, philosopher, poet – and on recognizing the archetype, see how the character fits into the structure of the book.
In practical terms, this often results in some winnowing. The number of characters can be reduced, because we realize that there is more than one mother; more than one dutiful son, more than one witch… obviously, sometimes this is exactly what you want. But it helps to be aware at a level above the story, where characters are symbols, where they represent some aspect of being human, some facet of many people’s behavior or personality.
For me, what arises from this is the “Archetype and Saga” analysis – a means of viewing your story from very high altitude, that will enable you to see it as a whole. Writers are generally down among the vines. It isn’t hard to lift your head high enough to see the whole vinyard, but this will really give you a bird’s eye view; you’ll see the rows of grapevines, and the gentle curve of the hill.
First of all, take your 6 most important characters (don’t do this for more than 10; 3 is probably best). Give each of them a one-word descriptive name, that corresponds to an archetype:
Remember these are not words that describe the character’s job or main activity, but their role in the story. There are a number of ways to find it. Any of the following work well:
Imagine the character was in a fairytale. Would they be the fairy? The frog? The annoying booted cat?
Imagine the character was in a Western. Would they be the sherrif? A bounty hunter? A “saloon girl” ? A gold digger? A snake oil salesman? A frontiersman?
Imagine the character was in Star Wars. Which character would they be?
None of this means you’re being unoriginal. Your originality is at lower levels, among the leaves and stems.
Your originality is in how these characters interract to teach a lesson (that passes, if you do it right, without the reader noticing) and to tell a story.Continue reading