Choosing a Point-of-View Character

June 16, 2019

Two friends on an adventure.

The hero and villain meet at last.

Two characters in a blossoming romance.

“Who gets the point of view?”

I mean, whose point of view (POV) will you write the scene from? If the story only has one POV character, this is easy, but if you’re alternating scenes or chapters with the POV of different characters, how do you choose for a particular scene?

A lot of the time, a certain POV will just feel right. If so, go with it. That’s your prerogative as an artist. But what if you’re not sure?

There’s a rule I like to use. The POV character is the one who is the most surprised by what happens in the scene.

Every story is a series of surprises, of gaps between what the character (and reader!) expects and what actually happens. These gaps apply pressure to the character until the character is transformed in some way.

In any good scene, at least one character is in for a shock. That’s your POV character.

When I was writing New World, which is told from the point of view of both Bogg and Simon as they chase villains through the woods, I noticed that the growth of their connection over the course of the book consisted of one surprising the other, over and over, as they got to know each other. Whoever was due to be flummoxed would get the POV.

Let’s call it the POV rule of surprise.

signal-2017-03-24-080018

Sam is often surprised, so he’d be a great POV character.

 


Writerly Tricks (Not) Found in The Avengers Movie

May 25, 2012

Join me in raising a stein to Joss Whedon, who’s been at this for a long time. I’ve been following his work since Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… 13 years ago.
Joss Whedon
He rewrote the Avengers screenplay originally created by Zak Penn. I can’t think of a trickier story to tell than an origin story with a large ensemble of characters, who are already well known. What a minefield of clichés to avoid! But good old Joss; he did it.

What can we find in his script? Below, I’ll give you some things to watch for with your writer’s eye when you see it (or see it again).

Spoilers below… but come on, if I tell you that the good guys win, will that keep you from seeing it?

#

First, I’m going to pick on Joss a little, just to get it out of the way. Because we have to talk about the villain.

The villain establishes the stakes of the story, and is a good gauge of a story’s intensity. The more powerful and compelling the villain, the more compelling the story.

The villain in The Avengers – Loki, god of mischief and Thor’s brother – isn’t very threatening. We never really believe that the Avengers will fail to kick his patootie. Because of that, the villain is the weakest point of this story.

Loki
Now, I think that was a tactical decision on Joss’s part. He’s got a lot of story he needs to tell, and it’s of a particular type: the first Avengers movie couldn’t be about the villain. It’s about the heroes. So Loki does a set of necessary jobs for the plot, and nothing more.

First, Loki provides motivation for the other characters to overcome their differences – the arc of the movie.

Second, Loki provides Joss with an ingredient he needs to do one of the things he’s great at: writing scenes with plenty of reversals and confrontational dialogue. Reversals occur when power shifts in a scene, and a character gains or loses the upper hand. Repeated reversals are called zigzagging – a set of successes and failures, sometimes in rapid succession. Loki is powerful, but not too powerful, so each Avenger gets to have nicely balanced, exciting scenes with him.

The Hulk
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”

#

Joss’s real strength as a screenwriter is the ability to walk in the shoes of his characters, and then write dialogue that is grimly or hilariously honest. Because each Avenger is so different, Joss’s ability to capture a point of view shines through. These perspectives come out in conflict, and there’s as much adversarial dialogue between the Avengers as real confrontation between the Avengers and Loki.

There are too many characters, and not enough screen time, for the complex inner conflicts Joss is also great at portraying. Contradictory inner motives are easier to reveal in a movie with fewer characters, a season of television (22 dramatic hours), or a novel (4-8 dramatic hours, or longer if you’re a slow reader like me).

As we speak, The Avengers is racing toward the billion-dollar mark. It’s great to see a guy kicked around for so long finally get his due. You’ve heard what his fans say: you can’t stop the signal.

Serenity


Weird is Better

November 14, 2010

Duh.

Here’s the “eccentricity” chunk of my “Writing Great Characters” talk at Write on the Sound 2010. As before, the audio’s a little shaky, so turn it up.

Sol Stein said it:

“Eccentricity is at the heart of strong characterization. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the reader’s first vision of them.

If you were to examine the surviving novels of the twentieth century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric.”

(Watch that ‘thank you’ sign behind me. It’s the real star of this show.)


Do Readers Envy Your Characters?

October 8, 2010

Fiction can provide us with an intense vicarious experience. Readers identify with characters that they envy on a gut level, said Dwight Swain (author of Techniques of the Selling Writer).

I made just that point in my “Writing Great Characters” talk at the 2010 Write On The Sound Conference here in Washington State.

The trickiest thing about video is the audio, so you might have to turn it up.


Hack Your Brain, Bypass Writing Blocks

September 30, 2010

SMOKE is a game to engage your creative mind about your character by playing with metaphors. This is great for steering around creative blocks by skipping logical thought entirely. Some of your answers will be silly, but that’s okay, because some won’t. And some might give you the insight you were looking for.

Presented by Peter Elbow in Writing With Power, possibly adapted from John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist. (Although I learned it from Bruce Holland Rogers.)

1) If your character were a color, what color would he/she be? (WAS a color, not the character’s favorite color)

2) If your character were an animal, what animal would he/she be?

3) If your character were a piece of technology, what piece of technology would he/she be?

4) If your character were a mode of transportation, what mode of transportation would he/she be?

5) If your character were a food, what food would he/she be?

6) If your character were physically constructed out of a particular material or substance, what substance would he/she be made of?

7) If your character were a type of weather, what type of weather would he/she be?

(You can make up more questions like these on your own. There’s no limit.)


Let the Character Fit the Crime

March 7, 2010

Some writers dream up characters and write stories about them.

Other writers dream up crimes and seek characters to commit them.

By “crime” I mean the idea for the story, the situation, the plot, the high concept, the story problem. In science fiction, it’s sometimes called the gimmick (but I don’t think that’s fair).

I’m in that second group. The first impulse of a story for me is usually some weird answer to a “What if?” question. And sometimes, it’s just a good “What if?” question with no clear answer. To get the answer, I write the story.

For example:

1) What if a big creepy shark attacked a New England resort community?

2) Maybe you love alternate history stories. What if someone could travel to parallel realities and see how history, and his or her own life, could have worked out differently? (This is the premise of the novel I just finished. In other words, Sliders… only good.)

3) Let’s try a romance. What if a woman fell in love with a billionaire?

So fix your story idea in your mind, and ask, “Who would be most hurt by this?” Imagine a character who would be the most emotionally affected by the situation you want to write about.

Go ahead and twist the knife. We writers are all about pain. (And readers like it that way. They want to read about people at the end of their rope. Otherwise, why bother?)

Got it? That’s your character.

So how about this:


1) Who would be most freaked out by that shark? The sheriff, of course — someone charged with the responsibility of keeping the islanders safe. Someone who moved there from New York, specifically to escape violence and bloodshed. His children came too… and they love the beach. To top it off, he’s afraid of water.

For the islanders, the shark is scary. For Sheriff Brody, the shark is a nightmare.

2) For my reality-hopping novel, I created a character whose parents died young, leaving him with a younger brother and sister to care for. He desires a woman who is just out of his reach. He feels unfairly shackled by fate, and the chance to see other worlds where he could live his dreams — instead of feeling tortured by them — is irresistible to him.

Yet, he loves his family. His connection to them makes him unable to forget his origins, and drives his internal conflict. Soon enough, he’d sacrifice anything to get back to his home.


3) The key to romance is to have two characters fall in love… and then come up with as many obstacles as you can to keep them apart. So how can we torture this nice lady? If the man is rich, then perhaps she’s poor, visibly poor, painfully poor. Of course, she’s in a position to see him every day, so her agony is perpetual. Perhaps she cleans his office (or perhaps she’s a lowly prostitute, or perhaps she’s tasked with planning his wedding to another woman — ouch! Are you seeing how big-shot screenwriters use this technique?).

Maybe she’s one of his employees, and she’s downsized. Now she’s cut off from him. To me, that one sounds like the catalyst, the event that sets the story in motion.

#

We read fiction to be entertained, and to get wisdom. Writers can satisfy both of these needs by showing characters who are used up, burnt out, up against the wall, out of options — in other words, people who are so wounded by their problem that they’ll do something profound in order to solve it.

Hurt your characters. A lot. That might mean choosing characters who will be hurt the most.


Vader vs. Voldemort

February 11, 2010

“Let’s be bad guys.”

Or at least let’s talk about bad guys. Villains, I mean.

The antagonist.

Film critic Roger Ebert says, “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.”

As usual, this is true for novels, too. And if you think your book or screenplay doesn’t need an antagonist… just hold on, I’ll get back to you in a minute.

To understand bad guys, we’ll start with good guys.

Here are a few writer’s tools I’ve talked about before, used to make protagonists effective:

Eccentricity: memorable characters are not ordinary.

Envy: readers most love the characters that they wish they could be.

Yin-Yang Complexity: realistic characters have traits that are contradictory, making the character a paradox. (After all, you’re a paradox… aren’t you?)

Save the Cat: a scene that shows the reader that — despite moral ambiguity on the surface — this character has a moral center that makes him or her worth following.

So… can these tools make an antagonist interesting, too?

Some can. Let’s see which.

Eccentricity

It’s difficult to think of a great villain that’s not eccentric, although it may be only their villainy that makes them so. Hans Gruber, in Die Hard, doesn’t seem wildly eccentric… and yet he is. His eccentricity lies in the brilliant plot he hatched to rob Nakatomi Tower.

Some antagonists have their eccentricity bound up with the fantasy world they inhabit. Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort is the focal point of all the supernatural aspects of Harry Potter’s life.

(Plus, he’s like a snake dude. Come on.)

Likewise, the land of Middle-Earth is extraordinary to the reader, but Sauron is extraordinary to the characters in Middle-Earth.

So eccentricity for villains gets a big yes.

Envy

(This is a trait in the reader, not the character. Although villains can be driven by envy too.)

Do we envy a good villain?

Of course! It may be their raw physical power, or moxy, or charm, or sangfroide in the midst of panic and carnage. Smart writers make their villains intriguing by having them do and say things we wish we could do or say. Robert McKee channels the thoughts of the audience watching Silence of the Lambs: “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”

So envy gets a yes, for bad guys like Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, and maybe for Darth Vader, too. (You know you want a lightsaber.  And can think of someone you’d like to strangle at range.)

But wait… Sauron? And who envies Voldemort? Nobody — that guy is gross.

So there’s a split on Envy. Some antagonists yes, some no.

Yin-Yang complexity

This one splits, too. Some antagonists exhibit paradox, like Hannibal Lecter (the polite cannibal) and Hans Gruber (the charming terrorist. And one of my favorite villains, Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is charming as well. Lots of writers make their antagonists more compelling by balancing their nastiness with charm.


Darth Vader’s Yin-Yang flip in Star Wars comes when he kneels before a hologram of the Emporer. Before that scene, Vader is simply a faceless tyrant, a bully. But when we hear him say, “Yes, my master,” we a new side of him. This contradiction (vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant) is just the beginning of Darth Vader’s complexity, which explodes when he says those immortal words to Luke, and his complexity becomes vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant vs. compassionate father.

What about Voldemort? Does he have a paradox? A flip-side? No. (You could maybe argue that his flipside is cowardice, since his fear of his own death motivates all his actions… but I don’t buy it.)

Nor Sauron.

They are just plain evil. And off stage most of the time, serving as forces rather than characters.

So not all antagonists have Yin-Yang natures, but I think this sort of complexity makes more compelling, more memorable villains.

(To pay off the title, I’m saying that Vader kicks Voldemort’s keister in the compelling-villain competition.)

Save the Cat

This one’s easy — bad guys don’t do it. Ever. If they do, they become good guys.


Jayne Cobb is not a villain (though he lies, cheats and steals, and serves as a sort-of antagonist for Malcolm Reynolds) because he’s always Saving the Cat… usually by blasting away at mooks who threaten the crew of Serenity.

Jayne’s violence makes him good, and his guilt makes him complex. (Wow.)

Writers need to be careful with this stuff, or they’ll end up with a villain who’s more compelling than the hero. All protagonists must want something, and go after it. All antagonists must want something, and go after it. Antagonists, like protagonists, benefit if their writers use the tools of Eccentricity, Envy and Yin-Yang.


But “the primary characteristic of the villain,” says Dwight Swain, “is ruthlessness.”

Now, what about skipping the antagonist altogether?

Go ahead.

The adversity your main character faces might be a mountain, a machine, a ticking clock, a screwed-up society, or a thousand other things. It need not be personified. You might not be writing that kind of story. I’ve written stories with villains and without.

SF writer Ben Bova even says that villains are unrealistic. “There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.”

I don’t buy it. I think Bova is arguing against crappy villains, not all villains. Keep your tools in mind, and you can write cool villains — compelling antagonists who set up shop in the audience’s psyche and never leave.

(I left out some great villains. Norman Bates. HAL-9000. Moriarty. Have you got a favorite villain? Tell me in a comment.)