Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint

By Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is one of my favorite authors who writes about writing because she has a way of explaining things that is simple and clear. This book starts with basics that are appropriate for beginning writers and advances to an intermediate level.

The focus of the book is there in the title: Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. The book deals with them in that order but there’s also overlap because these issues are so closely related. Starting with character, Kress says:

If you invest time, effort, and imagination in creating compelling characters, you will automatically gain significant control of you plot, setting, and style.

Plot, setting, and style. All dictated by the characters you choose:

·         Plot depends on character because different people react differently to the same situation.

·         Setting depends on character, shaping young characters while adult characters often seek out settings compatible with their natural personalities

·         Style is influenced by character.

The first two are rather obvious (I think) but if the last doesn’t seem so to you, consider how Mark Twain wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Those characters didn’t only affect the dialog but shaped the style of the narrative as well.

Ms. Kress goes into some detail about how to choose the main character for your story. I know from experience that this isn’t always as straightforward as it seems, having a story in my files where I thought the heroine was the main character. Only after I finished the third (or maybe the fourth) draft did I realize that the story really belonged to the twin brothers she had to choose between. The heroine is still important, but that realization changed my focus significantly.

Another point Kress makes is that first impressions count. Kress talks about how to characterize with names, apparel, home d├ęcor and descriptions through another character’s eyes. Choosing these details is important and she gives valuable guidance in this area.

Kress segues seamlessly from character to emotions.  One of the things she says about emotion that I think is useful to beginning writers is:

It can greatly aid plausibility when we see that a character is acting out of genuine emotion, hiding genuine emotion, or paralyzed by genuine emotion. …Emotion drives behavior and behavior drives story. And emotion itself? It derives from two other critical concepts: motivation and backstory. What your character feels is a product of both what he wants right now and his entire background.

That’s beautifully succinct, isn’t it? When you have properly set up a character’s motivation and backstory, the story will very nearly write itself. Kress offers some excellent fodder to stimulate thoughts about these two vital pieces of character puzzle as well as examining different ways to insert backstory, the drawbacks, and how to determine if it’s truly necessary.

Also on the subject of emotion, she says:

…naming emotions is usually a poor way to portray them. Even when authors say something like “Fear gripped him,” the abstract naming is supplemented by other, more visceral techniques. This is because the aim is not to label emotion; it is to make the reader experience the same emotion that the character does.

That’s a pitfall even experienced writers sometimes stumble on. Sometimes the shorthand of telling finds its way into an early draft but never gets addressed as the author initially intended. It’s good to have the reminder to watch out for this.

Another lovely point she makes is about conflicting desires:

Interesting characters often hold two conflicting values and/or desires; which they choose helps readers to know their personalities and beliefs. Just as important as a character’s choice is his attitude toward that choice. Small choices should be consistent with, and sometimes foreshadow, larger choices the character makes later in the story.

The emotional mini bio on page 64 is a great tool for exploring a character’s inner life. It’s short – less than a page – but it asks questions I’ve never considered before. Like: What does she need to know about another person in order to accept that other as “all right” and trustworthy?

What a great question. It urges you to explore deep places in the character that I’d never considered, at least not on a conscious level.

Kress also examines the character expectations of several fiction genres. While this is an interesting yardstick, my feeling is that you should be familiar enough with any genre you wish to write that you’ll instinctively know the core character values that readers of that genre expect. Much more useful is the chapter about writing humorous characters. Even with the subjectivity of humor, the author has thoughtful, practical guidelines.

In some places, she strays from conventional “wisdom.” For instance, when writing about dialog, Kress says:

In my opinion, adverbs have gotten a bad rap. It’s true that over-using them can look lazy or even silly…but used well, adverbs can indeed effectively indicate tone of voice. There’s nothing wrong with, for example, “He said gently.” Adverbs in unexpected pairings with dialog can add complexity:  “’I love you,’ he said angrily.”

A chapter that I found particularly interesting is the one about frustration. In a nutshell, this is what Kress says about frustration:

…without frustration, there is no plot. Frustration means that someone is not getting what he wants, that’s what makes a story work. Motivation, values, and desires start the character on her fictional journey. Climaxes are often provided in scenes of love, battle, or death. But everything in between, the meat of your story, is driven by frustration.

This is something most writers know instinctively but having it put into words gives us the opportunity to really think about it. As Kress points out in this chapter, how your character deals with frustration shapes much about the story. It defines the limits of where it can go. That’s not a bad thing. Stories need limits, so they make sense. If your story isn’t going where you want it to go, changing the way key characters deal with frustration can change the story’s direction (or even theme). Becoming aware of how frustrated behavior impacts a story gives the author a powerful tool to create the story they want.

Simple as this sounds, Kress adds to the tool chest with this observation:

Complicating your task is the fact that frustration, like love, is seldom a “pure” emotion. It can come mixed with many others: anger (“How dare they!”), hurt (Why won’t they help me?”), fear (I’ll never get what I want”), self-blame (I’m not good enough to succeed”), resignation (Can’t win ‘em all”), or bitterness (Life sucks”).

Each of these creates a different story path.

The last quarter of the book is spent on point of view choices, but not just whether to write in first person or third person. Which point of view to choose is addressed in more detail than I’ve seen in most writing books .

For instance, Kress talks about how to make the most of different points of view. In discussing how to eliminate distance in first person, she says:

…the sentence “I wondered if Jane would call today is a subtle distancing. We are looking at the narrator wondering. Closer inside his head would be one of the following:

·  Would Jane call today?
·  Maybe Jane would call today.
·  Jane wouldn’t call today. She never called when I needed her to.
·  Hope fluttered in my belly, unsettling my breakfast: Maybe Jane would call today.
·  God, I was pathetic, hoping for a call from that bitch Jane.
·  The refrain sounded again and again in my head: Jane. Call. Please.

This technique works well in close third person as well.
So Character, Emotion & Viewpoint is solid writing book. Novice writers will get the most out of it, but there’s food for thought for all levels of experience.

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