Characters & Viewpoints

Letting Your Characters be Who They Are (A Deeper Look Into Point of View)

Point of view is one of those tricky subjects we often struggle with as writers.  I know I’ve been trying to get a solid understanding on this since I started seriously writing back in late 2007.  Just the other day while I was reading one of my children’s newsletters from school, I came across something that gave me an “a-ha!” moment.

idea for blog post

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(You know you’re a writer when you read something totally unrelated to writing and make it relevant to writing.) :D

So anyway, this tidbit in the newsletter was about student behavior.  Here’s the gist of it…

An event happens.  The event in itself is neutral.  BUT it is the person’s perception of the event that influences their behavior.

And that’s when the lightbulb lit up above my head.  So what did I do?  I did the first thing any writer trying to come up with a blog post topic would do.  I made notes on what I wanted to write for this post.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend (and fellow writer) who was getting stuck in her story.  Her character wasn’t doing or saying the things she would say and do.  That being the case, she didn’t know how to proceed with the scene.

That got me thinking.  How many times do we impose our own mentalities onto our characters instead of letting the characters be who they really are?  Our job as writers is to tell the character’s story.  It is their story, not ours.  If we want to tell our own story, we need to write an autobiography.  If we want to do fiction, we need to let the character tell his or her own story in the way they want.

So when we’re writing, I think we’d be better off putting ourselves in the character’s shoes.  See things through the character’s eyes.  Take into consideration the character’s background, religious (or lack of) convictions, prejudices (we all have them), hopes, and goals.  When an event in the story happens, we need to perceive that event through the character’s point of view.

Your job as the writer is to step aside and let the character believe what they want about the event, regardless of whether or not they are right.  Misunderstandings about something can be a great way of opening conflict in a story.  How often have you heard one side of the story and then learned the other side?  How often would you say two opposing viewpoints both had valid points after you listened to each person tell you what they think?

It’s no different with characters.  One character might see an event in a very positive light while another might think it’s the worst thing that has ever happened.  That is fine.  Go with it.  Let the character with the point of view have that perception. And when that character has perceived it in a certain way, have him react to it based on his personality.

blog post on character and point of view

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When I was in high school, I was in a play, and to this day, I remember the director (aka drama teacher) saying, “Good acting is reacting.” In the same way, good writing is allowing the character to react in a way that makes sense for him, given his history, baggage, prejudices, etc, to react.  The character might change eventually or might not.  But either way, that character has a right to react to an event that makes the best sense to that character.

For example, a character who has spent his childhood hiding from bullies isn’t likely to react bravely to someone who threatens him.  He will need to build himself up and overcome that tendency to run off before his is ready to confront the person threatening him.  It won’t happen overnight.  That’s where personal growth and struggle can come in for the character.

Even if you, as the author, face challenges head on and tackle them right away, your character might not be the same way.  It’s okay for your character to be different from you.  In fact, I think it’s great if you experiment with different personality types when you’re writing.  Too many times we try to impose who we are on the characters, and this can be very limiting.

Think about it.  If you write the same type of characters all the time, how different will your stories really be?  There are only so many plots available.  It’s how the characters react to the events (aka plots) that make the story unique.

You might get feedback from a reader who says, “I hated that character.  I never would have done (fill in the blank).”  The reader has every right to hate the character because the character didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations (based on the reader’s background, personality type, etc).  But does that mean the character was wrong to do what the character did?  Absolutely not.  The character has his own way of looking at the world, and this particular way of looking at the world just happens to be at odds with the reader’s way of looking at the world.

Remember: you will NEVER please EVERYONE.  So don’t even waste your time trying.  It’s okay to have haters on your book.  It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer.  It just means your book isn’t that reader’s cup of tea.  Books, just like points of view, are subjective.

Back to the post:

Think about real life.  We all have our own point of view on everything that happens around us.  We react to these events based on our point of view.  Another person we know will have a different point of view and react differently than we do.  It’s normal.  Life would be boring if we were all the same.

So embrace these differences when you’re writing.  Give your character the freedom to be his own person.  Even if that character is different from you, let him react to things that are appropriate for him.  I think it will help you develop more well-rounded and meaningful characters if you embrace differences instead of trying to fight them.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, storytelling | Tags:

The Emotionally Engaging Character: The Key to Telling a Compelling Story

A compelling story is one which grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.  It makes it difficult for the reader to put down so they can do something else, and when the reader does put it down, the reader is often thinking about the story and anxious to get back to it.  These are books that readers remember long after they read the book.  The reason for this is because they connected with the characters in the book on an emotional level.  The character’s journey became their journey.

Telling a story is one thing.  The basic structure involves normal life, a desire for something, a conflict that prevents the character from getting it, a climax, and a resolution.  The bare bones of every story isn’t exciting.  What makes the story exciting is the character who embarks on this journey from where they were in the beginning to where they’ll be at the end.

If the character is emotionally engaging, the reader will experience everything the character does.  If the character is anxious, the reader will get anxious.  If the character is laughing, the reader should at least be smiling.  The reader is going to forget they’re reading the book and become so engulfed in the story that they become the character.  When this happens, the story is compelling.

So how does someone create an emotionally engaging character?

1.  Let the character guide the story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the character can lead you as you write your story.  This is where you let the character tell you where to go instead of telling the character what he is going to do.  If you feel like the story is going in a different way than what you expected, let it.  This is a cue the character is letting you know the character wants something else.

2.  If the story stalls, chances are likely the story is going in a direction that isn’t right for the character.

I used to think when my writing stalled, I needed to press through it because I was bored of the story or simply tired.  After several times of pushing through and realizing about 10-15,000 words later I had messed up the story, I’ve learned the reason the story stalled was because I was forcing it to go in a way the character didn’t want.

Sometimes you have to take a break from the story and work on something else.  When you stall, that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with it.  Forcing it seems to only make things worse.  But when I work on something else, it frees my subconscious mind to work through whatever issue was making my story go in the wrong direction.  Then, one day when I’m not expecting it, the answer will come to me.  This is when the character is back in the driver’s seat, and I’ve gotten back on board again.

3.  Focus only on the characters whose point of view you’re giving.

I don’t recommend doing more than a couple characters’ points of view.  Pick the main ones and only do those, unless you’re only sticking in one point of view through the entire book.  Trying to cram in too many points of view will dilute the power of your story.  I typically do two points of view, though I have done up to four.  I do three or four sparingly, though.  For your reader to best connect with a character, they need to spend most of their time in that character’s point of view.  So pick the main one or two you need and make the story revolve around them.  If you do another point of view, do is sparingly and only when you need it to be the most effective.

4.  Be open to a wide range of emotions.

In order for your character to be emotionally engaging, you have to feel emotions–and feel them deeply.  Don’t be afraid of them.  A writer needs to be intimately connected to their feelings if they are going to create characters the reader can get engaged in.   The best characters are the ones that make the readers feel.  You can’t create those kind of characters if you don’t engage with your own feelings.

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A compelling story is one that will be remembered because of how it made the reader feel.  And along this line of thought, I want to close with this quote by Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  So when you write, make your reader feel something they’ll remember long after they finish the book.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, storytelling | Tags:

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Categories: Book Formatting, Book Setting, Book Setup, Business Plan, Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Reader, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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