Friday, July 3, 2020

How to Create an Engaging Third-Person Voice in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

If you want to write fiction that engages readers and sells, it's critical to develop an authentic, compelling voice in your novel. The key to accomplishing this is to recognize that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and reactions of your main character (or other important character -- villain, love interest -- in their own scene).

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games

These novels are all written in the first person ("I"), so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person (he, she), too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view. 

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s. The same goes for any scenes shown from the viewpoint of the antagonist or other important characters, of course.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood. 

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately describe the scene or explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character? 

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity: 

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before: 

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

Jodie’s comments: 

We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either. 

After: 

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river. 

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Here’s an example of a skewed, dark description through the thoughts and observations of the villain of a novel, a nasty character, a murderer with no conscience. This is from a thriller manuscript by talented writer Dara Carr, which I had the pleasure of editing several years ago.

The setting is a tourist destination on the Pacific Coast, Cannon Beach, Oregon, with its much-photographed Haystack Rock. The popular seaside resort is usually described in idyllic terms in travel and tourist brochures. Not so in this character’s viewpoint and voice.

    A gusty wind drove a spray of grit and salt at the van’s pitted old windshield. He ran the wipers to clear his sightline. The condos, once white, looked shell-shocked and gray. In another year, Marr figured the entire place would turn into driftwood.

    Expensive driftwood. The condos were beachfront property. Personally, he wouldn’t pay a dime to live there. The Oregon coastline, jagged and sharp like the edge of a serrated knife, was good for one thing only: boat crashes. And the famous Haystack Rock? Plastered with bird shit. Home to Dr. Death, who’d plot the end of the world from his roost on top of the rock.

Note how the choice of words and imagery (voice) in the excerpt above deepens the characterization of the villain and increases tension while setting the scene.

TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE POV CHARACTER'S VOICE: 

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved. 

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling. 

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes. 

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person. 

~ Stay in character. 

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their current mood, level of tension/anxiety, physical discomfort, and sensory feelings. 

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details on setting, characterization, and action through the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude! 

For more on this topic, click on this link to go to POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View and also Captivate Your Readers.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Writing Guides by Jodie Renner:

~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk 

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk

~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Quick Tips for Avoiding Viewpoint Gaffes in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

For an introduction to point of view in fiction and especially deep point of view or close third-person POV, see my articles 

POV 101 -- Get Into Your Protagonist's Head
POV 103 -- Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

POV = point of view = viewpoint – Who’s telling the story?  Whose story is it? or, for novels written in multiple viewpoints, Whose head and body are we in for that scene?

Here are some quick additional tips for avoiding POV gaffes in your fiction:

~ First, decide whose scene it is. Who has the most at stake? (If in doubt, show the from the viewpoint of your protagonist.)

~ Now, get into that character’s head and body and stay there for the whole scene or chapter. Don’t flit around to the thoughts of other characters or show anything that’s going on outside of your POV character’s range or perceptions.

~ Don’t show or describe things going on behind the character’s back, in another room, or anywhere out of their sight or hearing range. Only show us what the character can logically perceive at that time.

~ To describe the setting, use the perceptions, words, goal, attitude, and mood of the POV character for that scene. Don’t describe a scene as a neutral observer or as the author talking to the readers.

~ Color your descriptions of other characters with the attitude and feelings of your POV character toward them. Avoid neutral descriptions.

~ Don’t describe other characters in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. For example, don’t give a detailed description from head to toe of a character the POV character is looking at and already knows very well, like a family member.

~ Don’t get into the inner thoughts or feelings of any other characters in that scene. Show their thoughts, emotions, attitudes and intentions by their facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, words, and actions – anything the POV character can perceive.

~ When starting a new scene or chapter, use the name of the viewpoint character right away, in the first sentence, to establish immediately for the reader whose head we’re in now.

~ After introducing the POV character, refer to him or her in an informal way, as they would think of themselves. Don't use "Mr." or "Dr." or "The director," for example.

~ Use the POV character’s name at the beginning of scenes, then use mainly “he” or “she” except when their name is needed for clarity. (The “he” or “she” is like “I” and draws us in closer.)

~ Refer to other characters by the name the POV character normally uses for them.

~ Avoid lengthy "info dumps." Don’t butt in as the author to explain things to the readers, outside of the character’s viewpoint. Instead, reveal the info from the character’s POV or as a question-and-answer dialogue, with some attitude and tension to spice things up.

~ Don’t show the POV character’s facial expression or body language (unless they’re looking in a mirror). They don’t know what’s going on with their face. Or indicate it somehow through their thoughts or fears. For example, you could say “She felt her face flush” to indicate that she’s blushing.

~ Show the POV character’s inner thoughts, emotions, and reactions constantly to increase reader engagement.  

~ Sprinkle in brief direct thought-reactions in italics, like What? to reveal the character’s true feelings and increase intimacy with the readers.

~ Constantly show the POV character’s sensory reactions to their environment, other characters, and what’s happening. Use as many of the five senses as is appropriate to get us into the skin of the character. Also show fatigue, fear, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc. That way, readers are drawn in and feel they "are" the character.

~ Keep the narration in the POV character’s voice. Not only should the dialogue be in the character’s voice and style, but the narration should too, as that’s really the character’s thoughts and observations.

~ Avoid lengthy backstory dumps, the author telling the readers about the character and their background. Introduce only the essential info, through the characters. Or use brief flashbacks, in scenes in real time, with action and dialogue.

~ Don’t have characters magically knowing the names of other characters they’ve never met or heard of, just because we, as the readers, have met those other characters. This is an easy gaffe to make inadvertently.

For more tips on using deep point of view to engage your readers and bring your characters and story 
to life, see Jodie’s writers’ guides in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, including her latest, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

by Jodie Renner, editor & author   

As I discussed in POV 101, in order to draw the readers in and grab them emotionally, every story needs to have a clearly dominant viewpoint character the readers can immediately identify with

We should meet that protagonist right away, preferably in the first paragraph, and the first chapter should be entirely from her (or his) point of view, so the reader knows whose story it is and can start bonding with her and rooting for her. When we see the story through her eyes, reacting as she does to her problems, it sucks us into the story and we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her.

In POV 102, I gave some tips for avoiding “head-hopping.” If we stick mainly with our main character, in his head and heart, with a bare minimum or no stepping back to describe things from the author’s stance (omniscient POV), we’re using deep point of view. Also called close third-person POV, this intimate viewpoint is a lot like first-person point of view, with the added freedom of switching to the villain’s or some other character’s POV when it suits our purpose. 

Deep POV is a powerful way of drawing your readers into your story quickly and making them worry about your hero right away, and keep worrying – which is exactly what you want!

But how do you go about this? 

Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about a macho, hero-type guy named Kurt, who defeats the villain, restores justice, and even gets the girl. It’s Kurt’s story so he’s your main viewpoint character. How do you make sure your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by
Kurt, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Kurt. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Kurt walks into a bar, for example, you do not imagine how the bar looks from some god-like authorial stance high above, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Kurt sees it, walking in purposefully and looking around.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the bar. Show Kurt’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying, “The bar was noisy, dark and smoky,” say something like, “The cigarette smoke in the air stung Kurt’s eyes and, in the dim light, he couldn’t make out if his target was there. As he looked around, the room started to quieten down. Heads turned, and eyes took him in, some curious, some hostile.” This way, the reader is seeing the scene through Kurt’s head and identifying with him, starting to worry about him. This from-the-inside-out approach is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get truly engaged in your story.

But you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a rancher or a drifter or a hard-boiled P.I, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms, or tell about things he probably wouldn’t notice, like the color coordination of the d├ęcor, the chandeliers, or the arrangement of dried flowers in an urn on the floor.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip
, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Kurt, or telling about something that’s happening out in the street or even in a hidden corner of the bar, while Kurt is still at the entrance of the bar. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Kurt, not by going into their heads at this point, but by what Kurt perceives—he sees their disapproving, admiring, angry, curious, or intense looks, picks up on their body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

Then, in a later scene or chapter, you can go into the bad guy’s point of view and find out what he thinks of Kurt. Or, once he meets the girl, write a scene or chapter in her viewpoint so the reader finds out more about her and what she thinks of our hero Kurt.

This technique, properly used, will suck your readers effectively into your story world, where they really want to be, engaged, involved, and connected. 

For more techniques to draw readers in emotionally, see my book, Captivate Your Readers, available on all Amazon sites. 

And click here for some quick tips for avoiding POV gaffes.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

POV 102 -- How to Avoid Head-Hopping

by Jodie Renner, editor and author, JodieRenner.com   

In "POV 101 – Get into your protagonist’s head and stay there," I discussed the effectiveness of starting out your story in your protagonist’s point of view and staying there for most of the novel.

But what if you want to show how other people are feeling? If they’re important characters, like the villain, a romantic interest, or a close friend or family member, you can and should give them their own POV scenes, where you get into their heads and we see their thoughts, emotions, goals, aspirations and fears. This way we, the readers, find out things the main character doesn't know. Great for adding suspense and intrigue!

If another character is in the same scene as your main character, you show their thoughts, feelings and attitude only through what your protagonist can perceive—their attitude, words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and actions. 

Say you’re writing a romantic suspense or mystery, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, showing her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. The hero, whom she’s just met under unfortunate circumstances, is angry. You’ll show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him at that point (What the hell is going on here? he thought. What’s she trying to pull off, anyway?), but by what the heroine is seeing and hearing—his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.



The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Don't go back and forth within a paragraph or go into another character's thoughts for only a sentence or two. At the minimum, give the other person a paragraph or two. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action, since we’re still in the same scene. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time -- in other words, a new scene.

So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?

First of all, in order to become emotionally engaged in a story, readers want to identify with and bond with one main character -- your protagonist or hero/heroine. They want to follow that character vicariously, know their thoughts and hopes and fears, almost be that character for most of the novel. So it's natural to be privy to that character's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. But if the author suddenly jolts them out of that character and into the thoughts of another character, it feels unnatural and reminds us that we're reading a book. It's like the author is too heavy-handed, too intrusive. It can be subliminally confusing and annoying. Do that often enough and readers might put the book down and find another or write a less-than-satisfactory review. 

Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to go into another character's viewpoint. And most scenes should be in the POV of your protagonist.

Here’s an example of a viewpoint gaffe, which I made up:

Our heroine, Carole, is stirring the spaghetti sauce on the stove and talking to her husband on the phone. They’re discussing the fact that their son, Colton, is grounded. Suddenly, the author jumps into her son’s head and tells us about Colton sneaking by behind her back (his rap music is playing loudly in his room), and out the front door, then jumping on his bike and racing off. Back to Carole, who continues to stir the spaghetti and talk on the phone.

What’s wrong here? We were in Carole’s POV, and she had her back turned so she wouldn’t know Colton was sneaking past, especially with all that noise coming from his room. And how would she know he’s riding away on his bike? Another jarring POV shift in the same scene would be if we suddenly started seeing her husband waving his secretary away because he’s in an important conversation. We’re in Carole’s POV in this scene, and she can’t see what her husband is doing at his office.

Here’s another example of ping-ponging point of view, where we the readers jump back and forth over miles, within seconds.

We start out in Steve’s point of view, who’s in trouble and has just picked up the phone and called his wife, Grace:

“Grace, thank god you’re home. This is all too much for me. My life is crumbling around me and I can’t seem to do anything about it,” Steve said, closing his eyes and rubbing his face.

The sadness and despair in his voice brought tears to Grace’s eyes.

“I have to think.” There was long pause before Steve continued. “Luckily, George is right here. I’ll ask if he knows a good attorney who can help with this.”   

“That sounds good.” She felt some relief.   

“I’ll call you later,” Steve said, then hung up and slumped back in his chair.

“I’ll be waiting,” she said softly. The call ended before she could say I love you.

What’s wrong with how this scene is written? It's disjointed and confusing. Also unnatural. In reality, we would be one of those people and would have to infer how the other one is feeling or what they're doing by what they say, their inflection, background noises, etc.

Choose either Steve or Grace and play the scene from his or her POV. Show us only what he or she can see, hear, and perceive.

A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.”

By the way, my third book, Captivate Your Readers, gets into a lot of detail on engaging your readers and bringing your story and characters to life by using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, and stepping back as the author to let the characters tell the story in their own voice.

 
And click here for some quick tips on avoiding viewpoint gaffes. 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com and on Facebook and Twitter.  

Sunday, June 14, 2020

POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)

by Jodie Renner, editor and author, JodieRenner.com   




I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint / eyes / head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them (omniscient POV) or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints within a paragraph or scene (“head-hopping”). 

Except for omniscient POV (the author talking directly to the readers), point of view or POV simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Most of today’s novels are written in third-person POV, with the main character referred to as “he” or “she,” even though we’re seeing their world through their eyes. First-person POV, where the main character is telling their own story, using “I” and “me” is used occasionally and is very common in YA (young adult) fiction, often paired with present tense.

This post is about using close third person or deep point of view to bring your main character to life for the readers. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him or her – and that keeps them turning the pages!

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and are eager to find out what’s going to happen to her next and how she’s going to handle it.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice:

“Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.”

It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.

Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story.

Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and is agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her.

As Bickham explains, 
“I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.”

Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action. 

So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. 

Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue, and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! 

And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. But it's usually best not to be inside the head of both characters within the same scene. This can be confusing, even unsettling, to the readers and is difficult to pull off effectively. Nora Roberts is one of the few authors who seems to be able to manage this seamlessly.

Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.

In POV 102, I discuss “head-hopping,” which many new fiction writers do without realizing it and which is jarring and distracting to today's readers. In POV 103, I get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third-person POV.
 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

LET YOUR CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY


by Jodie Renner, editor & author, www.JodieRenner.com
With all the high-quality, exciting fiction being published these days, it’s absolutely critical to captivate readers right away and keep them eagerly turning the pages of your story.
 The most effective way to really engage readers emotionally and bond them to your character is by using deep point of view to get up close and personal with your character, and at the same time, creating an authentic, compelling voice for your story, a fresh, original tone and style.
How do you do that?  First, create a strong, charismatic main character, then let that character share his or her story directly with us, with no intermediary -- or as little other narration as possible. 
The best way to create a compelling "voice" for your story is through the words, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of your main character.   
Try to become your character(s) for the story. Make a conscious effort not to intrude as the author (or a neutral narrator) to tell readers anything or explain or describe things.  
Let the POV character for the scene show the setting, reveal other characters, and build the story world in his or her own unique voice, with attitude, using words and phrasing that are natural to their own personality and mood and their personal reaction to the situation at that moment.
Rather than writing neutral narration, take a tip from first-person POV and keep not only the dialogue, but all of the narration (observations and explanations) for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, colored by his or her background, personality, attitudes, and current feelings (emotional and physical).
Here are some concrete tips for engaging readers and creating a strong voice in third-person point of view (“he” or “she” instead of “I”):  
~ Start with a compelling character that readers will identify with and root for.
Your main character needs to be charismatic and sympathetic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s intriguing and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness; fairly strong views; and some baggage, secrets, vulnerability, and inner conflict. Then be sure to show his world and the events unfolding around him through his eyes, ears, and feelings, not the author’s, or that of an omniscient narrator.
~ Make sure the dialogue and thoughts are unique to that character.
Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like that character would actually talk, given their personality, upbringing, education, and social standing, as well as the current situation, how they feel about it, and who they’re conversing with. (We usually speak differently in a formal situation or to a professional than to a close friend or family member.)
~ Write the narration from the character’s point of view, too.
Take it one step further and stay in your character’s POV for the observations, descriptions, and explanations, too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, neutral, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality, mood, and comfort level.
~ Don’t intrude as the author to explain things to the readers.
Even technical and other explanations should be presented (briefly) through the characters, perhaps in a sparky dialogue with disagreement and attitude.
Be on the lookout for where you step in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream.    
Remember – show, don’t tell!
TIPS FOR KEEPING NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION IN THE VIEWPOINT CHARACTER'S VOICE:
Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.
~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling.
To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this wording to show his personality more in the scenes.
~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.
Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two, in first-person narration/POV (“I”) to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.
~ Write with attitude!
To bring the setting, scene, and characters to life, deliver those details through the viewpoint of the main character for that scene, in their voice and wording, with strong views and a controversial mindset that projects their current mood, physical and emotional reactions, and general attitude.
~ Impart info through lively dialogue.
Rather than intruding as the author to explain something to the readers, have characters arguing about it, or use a spirited question-and-answer dialogue exchange to inform the readers naturally, through character interaction.
~ Role-play.    
Read your dialogue and narration out loud to make sure it sounds natural and authentic to your characters’ backgrounds and personalities.
To summarize, for an engaging “voice” in third-person, be sure to use deep point of view and stay in the POV character’s head in the narration, too. In a nutshell, bring your fiction to life by stepping back as the author and letting the characters tell the story.   
Readers - feel free to share in the comment section below a passage from a story you've read -- or written -- depicting a scene shown through the eyes, ears, attitude, and current mood of the character.
For more detail on getting readers up close and personal with your protagonist, see my articles on point of view, here on this blog: POV 101, POV 102, POV 103, and Quick Tips for Avoiding Viewpoint Gaffes.

For more techniques and examples for bringing your fiction to life and engaging your readers, see Jodie’s book, Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction.

For many more valuable tips, with examples, for writing compelling fiction, check out Jodie Renner's award-winning fiction-writing guides, Writing a Killer Thriller, Fire up Your Fiction, and Captivate Your Readers, available at all Amazon sites and elsewhere. For Amazon, click on the links below.

~ Fire up Your Fiction
– An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories  

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction
   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

For information on Jodie's editing services, visit
JodieRenner.com
.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Capturing Your Character’s Character

by Trevor Atkins, historical fiction & children’s book author

After I posted a screenshot of the character sheet template I use to a Facebook writers group, editor and author Jodie Renner asked if I might provide a bit of my thinking behind using this tool. This article is the result. 



When developing the major characters of my stories, I can’t help but draw upon my experience both playing and running tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). In such games, character creation is extremely important to the game. The players are the main characters in the collaborative story they will be experiencing together. Even when first coming up with their characters, they are already adding them into the narrative.

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • Where do they come from?
  • When did they become the type of person they are today?
  • How do they mesh with the world around them?
  • Why are they here now?
This is a lot of information. Much of it, especially the technical aspects, is put into the character sheet template for whatever game we might be playing.

I use a similar approach for the characters in my stories. What follows is a description of how we can explore, decide, and capture a character’s character for a work of fiction in this way.

The Whole Iceberg

Premise: A reader wants a story that progresses believably with interesting and relateable characters. For that we need depth.

We might not want to detail a character’s whole life, their relationships, and all their decisions and goals in our actual story, but we need that insight to best understand how they will interact.

“What’s my motivation in this scene?”

To create a story, or to even write a scene in a story, we need to know our characters. We need to hear them talking, to see their body language, to know when they would tackle a problem and when they would run from it. We need to know:

  • What they look like, sound like, and act like
  • Why they are different from all the others (of the same archetype/stereotype)
  • Where they are from, and where they are going
  • How they change during the course of the story (and why)

As we generate this information, we will start to feel the need to organize it, to categorize it, to make it easy to reference. This is where our character sheet template comes in.

Using a Character Sheet Template

For each of our characters, we can complete a character sheet template in order to capture our understanding of them as a whole entity.

But first, it’s important to recognize that the template is just a tool to get us started. It’s not a rigid recipe or a set process. It’s not an automatic or automated solution. It’s a set of prompts that helps us define what we need to know about our character and a place to capture those ideas.

And a great thing about using a template as a tool is that we’re able to customize it to our preferences and needs. We shouldn’t complete a “found” template in its original form. We should feel free to re-label, remove, add, etc. as we feel necessary to make it our own.

In that vein, instead of just providing a template that you might find awkward, incomplete, or too complete, here’s an outline of the big categories and some sub-bullets you might want to address. And then you can make your own. 

External Description – How do others see them?


This part of character creation can be very mechanical. This is where we decide how our character presents themselves outwardly.

  • How they look – hair, eyes, build, distinguishing marks, clothing, etc.
  • How they talk – tone, formality, vocabulary, accent, swearing, catch-phrase(s)
  • How they act – attitude, mannerisms, habits
  • What makes them special – skills, abilities, knowledge, experience
  • What notable possessions do they have – weapons, tools, accessories, money (or access to), any special items (eg: ring with family seal). Note: They may or may not have these items on their person at all times. They may find them in the course of the story (perhaps after losing them at some point in their backstory).

From this information, we can also distill the one-line introduction for the character.

Internal Description – What are they thinking?


This part of character creation is very introspective. Here we decide how our character thinks and feels on the inside.

  • Reactions/feelings – how they feel/behave when presented/confronted with A, B, or C
  • Values/beliefs – how they make choices/decisions, moral compass
  • Psychology – personality type/traits, likes/dislikes, fears/desires, mental health, sense of humour
  • Relationships – feelings for others, established or blossoming
  • Goals/motivations – why they act the way they do

As we put together the above details, we will find ourselves thinking “they wouldn’t do that” for X, or “that’s *so* how they would react” to Y.

Why, it’s Backstory Time


The last part of character creation is the development of the character’s backstory. This is the “why” of our character. When combined with the above, this information is what will ultimately make our poor woodcutter (friendly witch, staunch sea captain, enigmatic gunfighter, [insert-your-archetype]) unique and compelling to write about.

  • Early years – where the character came from, family members/situation, what shaped or influenced the character’s beliefs and values
  • Recent past – what/who has influenced them to be where they are now, what are their immediate goals

This information will help flesh out our setting, identify additional characters and events, and enrich our story with plot threads.

How Much is Too Much?

“I want to write the story, not fill out all these character sheets!”

I hear you! In this article, I am sharing what information I would include when fleshing out a major character in a lengthier story. We don’t need all this information for every character. For shorter stories or lesser characters (shapers, influencers, supporting characters, and encounter characters), I even use a different version of the template with scaled-down the scope and detail. So how much is needed depends on you and what you are writing.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that each character is the main character in their own story. We might not be telling that story, but minor characters should still interact with, affect, shape, and influence others as real people. Knowing some details about them can help us make those interactions feel more authentic.

It is also important to note that a character sheet is not just completed at the beginning of our writing effort and then set aside to only be referenced occasionally.

What character springs to our mind fully formed and flush with details? We will capture what we can at the beginning. Then, as our writing progresses, we will learn more about them as choices are made, information is traded, relationships change, etc. – inspiring ideas in us which might become critical to our plot or serve to give it colour.

In summary: A character sheet is a great place to keep track of all these thoughts as our characters grow and evolve through our writing, especially if we feel a series coming on! 

About Trevor Atkins

With the help and inspiration of his daughter, Trevor is currently writing stories and designing/publishing educational tabletop and card games with a strong STEM component for elementary and middle-grade children.

Check out their children's comedy adventure "The King and Queen's Banquet: A Play in Three Acts" in softcover and e-book on Amazon.com, "The Bone Game" a card game that teaches the bones of the human skeleton on TheGameCrafter.com, and a number of free print-and-play math-centric games available through PlayGames2Learn.com

Also, visit http://silverpath.com and subscribe for news about Trevor’s upcoming ‘pirate-y’ historical fiction that tells the tale of a young girl as she learns the ways of the sea, bonds with her fellow shipmates, and then has to save everyone from a cursed pirate treasure!