Playing ‘Character Point Of View’ Tag

Strong POV characters dominate Tana French’s novels. Each of her people have definite ideas about life, love, work, and how things should be done. This allows each novel to be its own complete thing.

And there’s a really cool thing French does that makes these characters even more interesting — and that’s making her characters have opinions (strong, almost unbendable opinions) about the other recurring characters. The result is a very interesting conglomeration of people who you, the reader, know intimately, but leaves you suspecting that you can never really know anyone.

To illustrate this points, I’m going to track the game of Character Point of View Tag that French plays with her characters.

Beginning with In the Woods, the first book in the series. 
The POV Character/”It”: Rob Ryan, troubled survivor of an unknown trauma. He tells the story of his past and the present day murder, which are somehow connected. He’s presented as a somewhat sarcastic, youngish member of the Murder Squad. A guy really too smart for his own good:
“I have a pretty knack for imagery, especially the cheap, facile kind. Don’t let me fool you into seeing us as a bunch of parfit gentil knights galloping off in doublets after Lady Truth on her white plafry.”

The “tag” goes to Cassie Maddox, Ryan’s partner in In the Woods, who is described by Ryan: “She was wearing combat trousers and a wine-colored woollen sweater with sleeves that came down past her wrists, and clunky runners, and I put this down as affectation: Look, I’m too cool for your conventions. The spark of animosity this ignited increased my attraction to her. There is a side of me that is most intensely attracted to women who annoy me.”

And Maddox becomes the narrator for The Likeness, book number two:
“It”: Cassie Maddox. How she describes herself and while she escapes her day-to-day with target practice: “After the first few shots a fuse would blow in the back of my brain and the rest of the world vanished somewhere faint and far away, my hands turned rock-steady on the gun and it was just me and the paper target, the hard familiar smell of powder in the air and my back braced solidly against the recoil. I came out calm and numb as if I’d been Valiumed. By the time the effect wore off, I had made it through another day at work and I could go whack my head off sharp corners in the comfort of my own home.”

The “tag”: Frank Mackey, head of the Undercover Squad. How Cassie describes him: “He was a legend: Frank Mackey, still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever.”

Frank Mackey becomes narrator for Faithful Place:
“It”: Mackey’s attitude about his role in Undercover is a little different than Cassie’s: “Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who know what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience.”

The “tag”: And Mackey has definite opinions about “Scorcher” Kennedy — “Scorcher is close on six foot, an inch or so taller than me, but he holds himself like a little guy: chest out, shoulders back, neck very straight. He has darkish hair, a narrow build, a serious set of jaw muscles and a knack for attracting the kind of women who want to be status symbols when they grow up and don’t have the legs to bag a rugby player.”

But, before we move on to Scorcher, Frank Mackey is a very fast “It” — he also tags off another later narrator, Stephen Moran: “Stephen Moran, twenty-six years old, home address in the North Wall, good Leaving Cert results, straight from school into Templemore, string of glowing evaluations, out of uniform just three months. The photo showed  a skinny kid with scruffy red hair and alert gray eyes. A working-class Dublin boy, smart and determined and on the fast track, and — thank heaven for little newbies — way too green and too eager to question anything a squad detective might happen to tell him”

Scorcher Kennedy, narrates Broken Harbor:
“It”: How he describes himself: “Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case. You’d be amazed how many of lads would have run a mile, given the choice — and I had a choice, at least at the start. A couple of them said it to my face: Sooner you than me, man. It didn’t bother me, not for a second. All I felt was sorry for them.”

Stephen Moran, narrates The Secret Place:
“It”: How he describes himself: Cold Cases is good. Bery bleeding good for a guy like me: working class Dub, first in my family to go for a Leaving Cert instead of an apprenticeship. I was out of uniform by twenty-six, out of the General Detective Unit and into Vice by twenty-eight — Holly’s da put in a word for me there. Into Cold Cases the week I turned thirty, hoping there was no word put in, scared there was. I’m thirty-two now. Time to keep moving up.
      Cold Cases is good. Murder is better.”

And what’s even better is that you can reverse the tag game and hear what each of the narrators thinks about a previous narrator or two. Plus other side characters that haven’t taken center stage yet. The Easter eggs are fun to find.

Guest Post: When Women Write Men

Today, I bring you a special edition guest post from our friend John.  Last week, I talked about men writing women, and we thought it would be fun to get the other side of the story.  So, without further ado, here’s what John has to say about it.

“How do you write women so well?”
“I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
As Good As It Gets
It is in the spirit of gender equality, that I say women can’t write men either. Or rather, women who do a good job of writing men can still fall short.
I tried to read My Sister’s Keeper, but I was so put off by Picoult’s absurdly written lawyer, I nearly threw the book across the room. There was no way anyone could convince me that this was a real human being. However, Carolyn Parkhurst with The Dogs of Babel has written a protagonist that is not only believable as a human being, but you might even get the sense that you have met a guy like him before.
There are a couple of issues at work here. First, you have to understand the human condition enough to create a believable human being. Second, when it comes to anything that modifies a character beyond just being human, you have to focus on perspective.
 
Full disclosure, Ali really is a woman, and I really am a man. I also happen to be over a foot taller than her. Now, just from a physical standpoint, she has the advantage of seeing things on the bottom shelves of the bookstore where I possess the advantage of seeing the things on the top shelves. In this case the key to understanding each other’s perspective is to either squat down or learn how to build a ladder.
There is another issue at work here: Double Standards that often get ignored. When a man “can’t write a woman,” he is viewed as inexperienced in talking to girls and is to be pitied or ostracized. When a woman “can’t write a man,” it’s because “men folk are just too confusing to understand.” Which I find particularly amusing, because men generally aren’t a very complicated group of creatures. If you can’t figure them out, I challenge you to reassess how much you’re really paying attention. 
Also, it is a fundamental fallacy to assume that the experience of a group is completely homogenized. Just the fissures between feminists regarding how to fight for equality is enough to know that if you’re going “to talk to women,” you’re best served talking to a variety of women. I’ve met Stepford Wives with some of the most awful, degrading opinions of men, and granola hippy feminists who are able to tick off rather unique things men have to endure, and respect men for doing so. You have to make sure you’ve got your newly acquired perspective in perspective as well.
Basically, it comes down to the same things you have to keep in mind with any topic you wish to write about. Do you due diligence, stretch your imagination to include a perspective that doesn’t come naturally to you, and make sure you’re not building your ladder wrong. This is not anything new, regardless of the topic.
As for all of this talk of women depicted in chainmail bikinis: Yes, they’re impractical. Yes, they are probably uncomfortable. But, the goal of putting a woman in a chainmail bikini is NOT to present a believably strong woman. Fun Fact: A character called Jirel of Joiry was written in the same era as Conan the Barbarian. She was written to be just as physically strong as a man, and wore armor, but it was always worn with practicality in mind. She was the creation of a writer called C.L. Moore, who also was a woman. However, if you look at the cover of Weird Tales where Jirel first appears, she is in no way dressed as she was in story. She wore something more befitting an alluring damsel in distress.
Here’s why women get dressed up in chainmail bikinis and are forced to stand in ridiculously uncomfortable and awkward positions: All of that work makes them look AWESOME. Men who see a woman in a chainmail bikini are more likely to spend money on whatever creative vehicle is being advertised with a woman in a chainmail bikini rather than a regular bikini, and especially rather than something practical. Some businessman took biology and eventually discovered the connection between spending tendencies and how they are tied to evolutionary-borne instincts that are steeped in how humans go about looking for a reproductive mate. 
In other words, sex sells. But, it’s not always the writer’s fault that their characters are being tramped up. If you’re going to take issue with that, take it up with marketing executives and book cover artists first. If they blame the writer, then you know where to go next.
And just for the record, C.L. Moore’s depiction of men was fairly thin and one-dimensional as well.

Themes of Strength and Weakness

Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, Jamie Lannister, Tywin Lannister… What do all of these characters have in common? Power and strength. These are the guys who have the guts, the glory, and/or the gold.

Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen… Here are the underdogs. They don’t have the strength, they don’t have the political clout, and most of them have been pretty poorly treated by those who are supposed to support them – like Daenerys being sold off by her brother for the promise of an army.

I love the way Martin draws these characters because they’re both extreme, and balanced, which is no small feat. Robert Baratheon, the conquering hero, has everything. He’s got the gorgeous wife, a whole kingdom, a life of luxury, and Eddard Stark, the strong and loyal friend. The only problem is that for every strength, he’s got a matched weakness. His gorgeous wife hates his guts and is having an affair, the kingdom sits on the brink of unrest, and Robert’s love of the physical pleasures of life prove his undoing.

Eddard, well, Eddard was doomed from the start. He was too honest, too just, too fair to survive in the cuthroat world he got tossed into. A little more political savvy, a little bit of manipulation, and maybe he would have gotten out alive. But, if he had done those things, he wouldn’t be Ned Stark. His best qualities proved to be his doom.

On the underdog side, let’s talk about Arya. Arya was instantly one of my favorite characters. The little girl with a little sword. Hardly anyone takes her seriously. She doesn’t have much physical strength, she’s a young girl, she’s very much her father’s daughter, and once Ned is executed, she’s in an incredibly vulnerable position. And yet… Arya is a scrapper. What she lacks in other areas, she makes up for in pure force of will. This is one determined gal and those who cross her better watch their backs.

Tyrion, portrayed excellently by Peter Dinklage, has an obvious physical disadvantage. His father, as a result, treats him with disdain. Everywhere he turns, Tyrion is underestimated, mocked, and ignored. People are constantly blowing him off. The only thing he really has on his side is the family money. Oh, and his razor sharp mind. By turns callous and compassionate, Tyrion pays attention to what others miss and those who underestimate him pay the price, including his father.

In Martin’s world, the characters with the most obvious strength often have the biggest vulnerabilities and those with the most obvious disadvantages turn out to be the characters whose good side I’d most definitely want to be on. This balance means that although the world is larger than life and run through with magic, the characters stay real. Like real life, nothing, and no one, is black and white. So, we can’t help it if, every now and then, we root for the “bad” guy or find ourselves apalled by the “good” guy. We also can’t help it if, as we read, who we consider to be the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys” changes.

It keeps things interesting. It keeps us turning pages (or watching episodes).

When the Learning Curve is Steep – Sometimes HBO Can Help

Confession time: I watched the entire first season of the Game of Thrones HBO series before I read the books.

I know. I know. It was very Impure Reader of me. I should be thrown on the hellfire that awaits those who use CliffsNotes to write research papers. (Yeah, I know! There are people out there that do that! Not readers of this blog, of course….But they are rumored to exist.)

My friend John will not be meeting me in that .5 level of hell. Because he decided to read the books before seeing the series – if he ever, in fact, watches the series.

For the readers who are pure of heart and pure of intent…I give one warning whilst pursuing A Game of Thrones as a reading adventure: it might take a bit to get into the story. George R.R. Martin has this uncanny ability to write about a whole new world. Perhaps that should be Whole New World. Operative word: Whole.

He has a cast the size of four or five armies. He has the lineages of those characters stretching back five generations. He has two continents worth of weather, culture, clothing, courting, and infighting to tell you about. And all of this stuff is richly imagined and well-executed.

But it is a lot.

Once upon a time, while taking Shakespeare, my professor told my class that utilizing CliffsNotes, watching the Bard’s plays – or the movie versions of the plays – and using Wikipedia to help us gather the plot details was not a cheat. His argument was that Shakespeare’s language wasn’t familiar to most people and that as soon as you got past “What the hell is going on?” you could get to the meat of the matter. He told us to utilize whatever was at our disposal in order to facilitate understanding. Then the discussions could really get going.

While I won’t go so far as to say Martin is Shakespeare – after all, he’s writin’ in easily understood English – it might speed the process of getting into the first book if you have witnessed the relationships between the characters with your eyes. Martin does a great job of creating these characters but sometimes the names are tricky: relatives are named after one another, just like in real life; some character names are spelled very similarly (i.e. Tywin and Tyrion); and there’s always a House of ________ surname to try and keep track of. Plus, if you watch the show, you have the added bonus of knowing how to pronounce all the names.

The important thing to know: once you’re in the story, you’re in the story. It’s a rare book/series that makes you blink when you turn the last page, surprised to see the real world staring back at you. (“Hello, children. Where did you come from?”)

I might have considered this steep learning curve a negative for the book series, except there’s such a work ethic embedded into the text – you just know Martin did a crap-ton of work and that should be respected…and you just know deep down in your readerly soul that it’ll pay off.

So have you guys ever ‘cheated’ and watched the movie version before the book? Have you ever read a story where the details were increadibly focused? Where the world seems like it could exist right now, just on a different planet?  That’s some imagination right there! 

Giving Characters Their Arc

I’m always hesitant when it comes to a Dramatis Personae list anywhere in a book. What it means to me is this: there are too many characters to handle. It means there are too many threads to follow through to a full conclusion. It means that there is so much information gathered in the text of a novel that you need notes in order to understand it.

Generally, this turns me off.

And George RR Martin has a loooooong cast list at the back of his books.

When I picked up A Game of Thrones, I was very nervous about it. My brain didn’t seem up to the task of handling such a large group of people. And, honestly, if I hadn’t seen and fallen in love with the HBO series, I would have been beyond lost. It took a while to put the names with the characters for me – even with the visuals provided by the television series.

However, I was greatly, greatly impressed with how Martin handled his characters. After a little effort, they were easy to track and follow.

I think the ease of adjustment came from how Martin created complete arcs for each of his characters – especially in A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series. And the best example is of  Daenerys, the exiled heir to the Iron Throne, in this case. She goes from a child, with a child’s sensibilities at the beginning of the book, to a believable leader of nations by the end.

This arc for Daenerys is so complete that Martin lifted her sections bodily out of A Game of Thrones and created a whole novella: “The Blood of the Dragon.” It proceeded to win a Hugo award.

Daenerys’s story can be marked Point A to Point Z in A Game of Thrones.

SPOILERS!:
She is an innocent married into a barbarian horde, she learns to fight and love within that horde, she faces down her bullying brother, is faced with the death of her child and husband, confronts and kills the person who murders her child and husband, and then hatches dragons…earning her heir-to-the-throne rank rather than just having it handed to her. Pretty badass.
END SPOILERS!

I’ve never tried to lift a whole storyline based on one character before, but that’s probably a good exercise for revision –

Here’s what I’ve come up with…

Pick a character, any main or semi-main character in your story. Find all of his/her scenes. Pull them out (i.e. copy and paste them into a new document). Read it through. Does it read as a whole story? Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end? Is there some kind of growth cycle or does he/she remain painfully unchanged all the way through? Adjust accordingly.This also strikes me as a useful revision technique because it forces you into some distance from the main plotline sometimes. And in order to revise gracefully, we all need some space from the original story.

What do you guys think? Have you allowed your characters their full development? Have you decided that not all characters will get a full development? (Because that’s totally legit too.)

Character Twist

In honor of George R. R. Martin’s complicated characters, this week’s writing prompt is all about character twist. One of the my favorite characters that I love to hate is Jamie Lannister. He starts off as a total creeper and then you see a few more things that really make your skin crawl. I mean, total ick factor, people. But, then, Martin reveals the real motivation for the killing that earned Jamie the nickname Kingslayer and it turns out that Jamie has one or two redeeming qualities after all. Martin likes to muddy the waters, and it makes for fabulous reading. “Good” characters do bad things and “Bad” characters do good things.

This weekend, you should try to do the same. Take a character you’ve created, either one of your heroes, or one of your villains. Next, you’re going to write a scene where your character does something that contradicts that archetype. Your hero betrays a friend. Your villain performs an act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of an innocent. Or, whatever else you can think of that would be suitable.

Keep in mind, that the trickiest part of this kind of exercise is writing it convincingly. It’s not going to do you any good unless your reader believes the act is sincere and authentic to that character. Dig deep on this one.

Happy Writing!

World Building vs. Character Building

Today I’m going to follow up on my earlier post about The Year of the Flood. I had talked about Atwood’s world building, which is immersive and draws me right in. She doesn’t info dump, but rather, she gives little glimpses to draw you in. It’s like the world-building peep show. On the second page of the book, one of the main characters, Toby, is looking out at her surroundings:

“She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate…There’s a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it’s gone now.

She doesn’t bother explaining things. She raises questions, “What’s a lumirose? Why is there an arm?” and moves on. For a reader like me, it grabs me right off. I get curious. So, why do I find The Year of the Flood easy to put down? The characters and plot don’t grab me.

Most of the book is focused on flashback. We start with a post-apocalyptic setting, and the most fun parts of post-apocalyptic fiction are wandering the world, seeing the carnage, and watching the characters overcome the wasteland’s challenges. Flashback takes all of the fun out of it. We start with everybody being dead. Then, it goes back years to a storyline that is, honestly, pretty dry. We see both characters’ lives before the flood, and for both, it involves little of their own conflict and a lot of them observing other people.

The questions I come to for characters are: What’s at stake? What do they stand to gain or lose? What’s important to them? Or, put another way: Why should I care? I know both of the main characters survived the disaster. Everybody they had conflicts with before is presumed dead, so there are no reasons to assume that the big adversary from a decade earlier is about to resurface, especially since she spends hardly any time in the present once she gets past the first few pages. I made it to page 215 and I’m bored with the flashbacks. The past isn’t interesting unless it affects the present, and there have only been maybe 15 of those 215 pages that have anything to do with the present. Those 15 pages are mostly world-building pages, too. The closest the present has come to conflict is that one of the characters had a run in with some wild pigs and might be running low on food some time in the next few months. That’s fine as conflict to get you warmed up in the beginning, but when does it get bigger and more urgent than that?

To sum up: The Year of the Flood has left me high and dry. I want to care, but I don’t. I like the world, but an interesting world isn’t enough to get me through 400+ pages.