Friday, June 5, 2015

Writing a Novel: The Reminiscent Point of View

Changing the point of view of your story is typically frowned upon. There is one type of story, however, we're changing your point of view--or at least the expression of your point of view-- is necessary for the story. Though this point of view doesn't necessarily have an official designation, I like to call it the reminiscent point of view. I call it that because the story is framed as a reminiscence. In most cases, the reminiscence starts with the character firmly in adulthood until something happens to trigger a past memory. Because everyone changes as they get older, the point of view immediately changes to match the old self of the character. In some cases the difference will be negligible, but if you're dealing with an adult reliving a childhood memory the point of view and entire writing style will, of necessity, undergo a metamorphosis.

With this type of story, you might opt to use the same point of view for both present and past, altering only the voice of the character. This might mean using a third person narrative for both parts of the story. Or perhaps you'd like to use first person. Either can work effectively.

But there's a third option, one which makes a reminiscence stand apart from most other narratives. You have the option to work in both first person and third person for the same character in the same body of work. The present might be written as third person well the past is written as first person. And you could also opt to reverse this. Most other types of stories don't allow quite so much versatility.

But a reminiscence requires more than simply shifting your point of view. There should also be a shift in the writing as thoughts and actions are betrayed by the past self. Syntax, vocabulary, idioms, and styles of speech may all be different. Sometimes dramatically so if your past and present characters are separated by a great many years. A grandparent doesn't speak or think the way a child might, after all. This can be a difficult thing to accomplish and usually takes much practice. Playing around with the reminiscent point of view can enhance your writing skills and further your understanding of the nuances of writing a novel. This is especially true if you explore the many variations a reminiscence allows.

Personally, I don't often write a reminiscence, though I will sometimes insert a small scene detailing a memory a character is had. But since these tend to be recent memories, they aren't quite a reminiscence. If you like to play around with different styles of writing, a reminiscence might be a good way to do so.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Writing a Novel: The Relationship Between First Person and Third Person Point of View

Most fictional stories (though certainly not all) are told through the eyes of a single character. Sometimes two characters. When this is done, the author typically has a choice to make. Do I tell the story in first person, or do I open up a little bit and use third person? Both have their benefits, and both have their own unique drawbacks. But the really interesting thing about these two points of view is how close they can actually be.

Consider this first person sentence:

I stepped out my door, felt the wind brush across my skin, and knew it would be a beautiful day.

Then consider this third person sentence:

He stepped out his door, felt the wind brush across his skin, and knew it would be a beautiful day.

There really is very little difference, at least in this single example. But the connection here is not simply in the way the words are arranged. It is that in both examples, the action is perceived through the point of view of a single character. Changing the I to a he didn't really alter the story. He still stepped outside, felt the wind, and drew a conclusion about how the day would unfold. The same conclusion. Both examples also deny the reader access to certain things, most noticeably the inner thoughts of other possible characters.

So first person and third person have a lot in common. But there is a key difference, and this difference involves the reader's distance from the point of view (POV) character. In first person, you're right in the mind of the POV character. You get the joy (or the agony, depending on the book) of having access to all the POV character's innermost thoughts. Because of the nature of first person narration, you get all the thoughts of that one character. All of them. It can be fun. Or very annoying, depending on how the author handles it all.

Third person, on the other hand, gives the author a few options. It can be very much like first person. If you replace the pronounces (and alter your grammar here and there), first person becomes third person. You can still access the innermost thoughts of the POV character and get to enjoy the same privileges you had in first person. But this is only one way to handle third person.

You can take a totally different approach to third person and lock yourself entirely out of the inner thoughts of the POV character. You may have no idea what he's thinking or why he's doing the things he does. You're simply following the action. This can be fun and a bit exciting, but it can also be irritating. Sometimes you simply have to know what the POV character is thinking because he's acting like a little idiot and all you see are the actions. The thoughts are hidden. In the hands of a master, this point of view works well. With a novice...not so much, but that can be said with most points of view.

Between these two extremes, there are a dozen other options for third person point of view, and most fictional stories fall somewhere in the middle. Close enough to satisfy but not close enough to irritate, as one of my creative writing professors once said. But remember that as you get further from the character, third person had less in common with third person.

So which is best? Neither, really. It depends on your story. But it should be noted that one of the greatest benefits of first person or close third person is allowing you to understand a character who isn't all that verbal. So if your main character doesn't like to talk? Break out the first person (or the close third person, if you like). Your narrative will be all the more special for it because--let's face it--everyone thinks.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Practice Writing: Point of View

Point of view is something that you don't really understand, from a writer's perspective, until you've experimented with it a little. To do this you first need a story idea (or at least a single scene) and three different characters. Spend some time developing your characters before you continue with this exercise. Well-developed characters will enhance the exercise and better help you understand the nuances of point of view.

Once you have three characters and a scene for these three character to actually be in, it's time to write the scene. It doesn't have to be more than a page. Keep it short because you'll be rewriting it several times. Start by writing the scene from your point of view. This is a good thing to keep on hand as you move through the different points of view. It will act as your reference. Remember, the scene must be exactly the same each time. It is only the writing of it that will change.

Once you have your 'master scene', it's time to experiment with point of view. Rewrite the scene three separate times, each time using a different character as the point-of-view character. The same things will happen, but as you experience the scene through the lens of each individual character, you will notice subtle variations. Character #1 notices things that Character #2 takes no note of. Character #3 is so obsessed with how others perceive her that she barely notices anything at all. The thoughts and emotions of each character will have a clear impact on the overall narrative.

If your characters are fleshed out and alive (on the page, of course), each and every scene will be different. Oh, the sequence of events will be the same, but what each character focuses on, the things they care about, and their independent thoughts will greatly change the narrative. Play around with this a few times and you'll quickly see what I mean.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Searching for a Name

I hate naming characters. Probably because I'm so bad at it. I either make up names that have never existed or I end up with names like "Bob". Very creative. By the time I'm ready to publish, usually someone has suggested appropriate names, but I'm trying a whole new approach as I wander into the realm of science fiction. I'm trying to actually give people real names.

Starting with my main character. I spent a great deal of time on this guy, so I know everything but his name. I do know it begins with a 'W'. Why? It just does. So...a good 'W' name. Not William. Seriously not William. I eventually had to choose between 'Wyatt' and 'Wesley'. As much as I like Wyatt as a name, I eventually went with Wesley. I'd like to say that the name just came to me, but actually I was watching The Princess Bride. So Wesley it is.

I can't write a science fiction political thriller with just one character, so I need some others. After checking my plot-tree, I realize I need names for Wesley's parents. I drew a total blank, so I asked my son (who is eight years old right now). He likes the name Diane for the mother. Good. And Greg for the father. I don't really like the name Greg, so my son decided Gregor was okay. Fine. We have names.

But still not enough, especially since the parents aren't really in the story much.  Must have more names. I hate names. Maybe I should roll a dice. Or totally make them up. Nope, can't do that. Must have REAL names. I hate names.

I need a name for a little girl. Random little girl who ends up not being quite as random as Wesley thought she was. Since I really had no idea, I turned on the TV, flipped channels, and watched random TV shows until a name appealed to me. Leisha. There we go.

Leisha needs a father. Everybody Loves Raymond just came on. His name is officially Raymond. And Raymond's brother is Royce just because if I use Robert again I'm going to lose my mind. Raymond needs a wife. My father is currently yelling at his phone, so the wife's name is Siri. Raymond also needs a girlfriend (hey, it's crucial to the plot), and her name is...Melinda. Because my sister's friend Mel just called. Creative, no?

Melinda needs daughters (courtesy of Raymond, of course). Now I'm all stuck on the letter 'M' so I ended up with Mia, Mairy, and Maiya. And Melinda has another daughter (not courtesy of Raymond), but I was out of 'M' names. My son suggested Maige, and it sounded silly enough to suit the story (bear in mind, Melinda is a little nutty).

Okay, I now have enough characters to get started. Now to have everyone do something.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Twists and Turns: The Ever-Shifting Plot

I've been writing fantasy, and only fantasy, for several years now. But after completing The Imperial Series I've been longing for something a little different. Not too different, mind you, because I absolutely love speculative fiction. So I've been playing around with different genres, but eventually ended up with the biggie--science fiction.

Never having written science fiction before, I then had to spend two months doing my research. Lucky I love research, because there's a lot to read and organize. So two months of reading, basically. And somewhere along the way my interest in politics, which I had thought had taken a long nap, decided to wake up. Now I wanted to write a political novel. No, a science fiction novel. Or maybe a political science fiction novel.

Now that sounded interesting. More research was needed. And a new journal to jot down ideas and such. So I read more books and popped in every political movie I could find on my shelf. There weren't that many of them, truth be told. I'm more into books that movies.

Three months had now passed and I'd done little more than read. It was time to actually get something down on paper. I'm not much of a plotter, but I needed some basics to get me started. Especially as my new novel now had a decidedly political bent. Okay then...

What was my plot? Never mind that. I need some characters. Right. Characters. At least one. Let's start with a young woman. No, a man. Young man? Let's run with that. He needs a name. What movie is on right now? The Princess Bride? Fine. His name is Wesley. Or maybe Wyatt...no, definitely Wesley. I'll probably change it later, so let's just call him W.

Where is my story set? No idea. When? 1032 years in the future. Why 1032 years? That was the number randomly banged out by my youngest son. You'd be surprised how many times I decide things in that just way.

Good, then. I have a person and I have a time period. After only four months I'm semi-ready to write this thing. What was my plot? It's definitely not the same as it was when I started researching. Or when I finished researching, for that matter. Am I finished researching? Irrelevant. Did I just sidetrack myself?

Back to the point (though I'm not sure I remember what the point way). After prepping since before Halloween, I'm finally ready to let pen hit paper. My plot changes once more as pen hits page, but this is a good thing. It means my lot is refining itself, and I realize my plot has been boiling away in my brain the entire time.

Science fiction, here I come. Eventually.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Practice Writing: The Power of Descriptive Writing

Descriptive writing is the backbone of fiction. Think about it. If you don't describe anything at all in any way at all, you've really got nothing to work with. But describing anything is based almost entirely on a certain point of view. How I would describe a woman and how my main character would describe that same woman would inevitably be different (unless I am my main character, which I'm not). Not only do our own personal filters determine how we describe a character, but what he or she is doing will also make a difference. To understand this, try the exercise below.

Start by describing a woman. She's not doing anything, not moving, just standing there. Describe her, then read what you wrote. Because she's not doing anything, you probably focused exclusively on her physical characteristics. If she's not doing anything, there's not much else to describe.

Now take that same woman and describe her tending her garden. She looks exactly the same and she's wearing the same clothing, but now she's actually doing something. Describe her, then read what you wrote. This time you probably described what she was doing and how she was doing it. There will probably still be some physical description, but now that the woman is in action, there's a great deal more to focus on.

Time to throw emotion into the mix. Take the same woman doing the same thing (tending her garden), but this time you know how she feels. She's happy. Describe her tending her garden while she's happy. Notice how your description differs once again.

Finally, describe this same woman tending her garden while she is happy and you are feeling sad. Notice how your own emotions color your character descriptions. This is important to note because most of the time, at least if you're writing mainstream fiction, the author shouldn't really be all that present. Unless you are a part of the story, readers don't need to know that you're sad, angry, happy, or anything else.

So why is the above exercise important? Well, it helps you see how what your characters are doing and feeling have a great impact on how you present your characters to your readers. Developing your characters is a complex process, one that takes time and focus. Practice makes perfect, so work at it until you get it right.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Writing a Novel: Bringing Your Characters to Life

When we talk about bringing a character to life, voice, dialogue, and description all come immediately to mind, but these aren't the only ways to breathe life into the page. And here's where I whip out the old "show, don't tell" phrase that writers either love or hate. It's a little vague when stated just that way, but it's still worth thinking about.

Showing a character in action is not only a great characterization technique, but sometimes it's the only one available. There seems to be a tendency in fiction to have characters that spend way too much time in their own heads. Too much of the "action" is thinking. And while there are people who spent all of their time in their own heads, there are just as many people who don't think a lot, don't speak a lot, and can only be characterized by what they actually do.

So forget inner monologue, improbably conversations, and physical descriptions for a moment. They have their place, but if you focus on them you'll miss out on other techniques. So if you like description, try describing things instead of people. Focus on the character's car, for example. A lot of us is defined by what we own, so you can use objects that are present (or absent) to help give your character more life.

And don't forget to make sure of the reactions of others. In my first novel, Arianna's Tale, I use this extensively with one of my main characters. Damuk is a guy with many different facets, but at first we only see him through Arianna's eyes. As the story unfolds, however, we get to see how others treat him, how they respond to his actions, and we get and entirely different picture. Slowly we realize that he's not actually who Arianna thinks he is, and we learn this because of the behavior of others.

Another great technique is to mislead your readers entirely. Nothing is more fun, as a writer, than playing the role of the totally unreliable narrator. This ploy allows you to give the reader a version of events (and even people) that is either a little off or just totally untrue. And how exactly do you use this technique to reveal character? Typically by the arrival of a character who knows something contrary to the narrative you've set up. And then fun ensues, but this this technique cautiously. As much fun as it is, it can actually annoy your readers if not done right.

A well-developed character transcends genres and makes your book memorable. Use every technique available to you to make sure your characters shine.