Friday, September 9, 2011

Point of view and characterization mean divorcing from yourself

I got over a hump in my story yesterday. There was a piece that wasn't working, because I couldn't figure out what my protagonist Adrian's reaction would be to one of the story events. Whenever this happens, it's a sign that something isn't holding together earlier in the story. I went back over it several times and talked through it with friends, and after quite a long while I realized I had missed a step in Adrian's thought process - the point at which he went from thinking the word "liar" was an insult to realizing that "Liar" was a name for a social group. Because my story's climax depends on Adrian fully understanding who the Liars are and what they do, developing this thought process for him is critical to my success. Furthermore, each change in his understanding has to happen on screen, so that my readers can follow it.

So what does this have to do with divorcing from yourself? Well, the reason why I got lost in the first place was that as the author, I have all the pieces of the puzzle already. I know the answer, and all the levels of it. I had put together all kinds of steps from Adrian encountering the social group of the Liars to him understanding what it was for... I had just omitted the step where he realizes for the first time that it is a social label. It sneaked by me because I was concentrating so hard on all those other steps. In order to get this to work for readers, I have to step outside myself into Adrian's point of view so completely that I can understand what he learns and when he learns it (and how) without being blinded by my own knowledge.

Standing outside yourself is hard, especially when it comes to fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality.

I remember the first novel protagonist I ever attempted. I had a scene where she was walking out of a vehicle into a beautiful field of golden grass at sunset. She was loving how beautiful it was, ignoring all the people around her, feeling the free air, etc. All the things I myself would have done in her situation. The problem was, she wasn't me. She was a character from the undercaste of Varin - someone who lived underground, had never seen the sun or felt air move except when it was moved by a vehicle. Moreover, she was someone constantly at risk of abuse or persecution by people around her. What the heck was she doing ignoring people and walking out full of wonder and joy into a field at sunset? The result was that she didn't feel like she belonged in the world, and she didn't feel like she could be the age she was.

The age question is a subtle point, and something that many people run into. It's one thing to tell readers that your protagonist is a certain age. "She's nineteen," you say (however you choose to fit it in). But having her act like she's nineteen is something else. The way I wrote my protagonist in the field scene might have worked with her age if she'd been an Earthly nineteen-year-old. But given the social situation of Varin, that kind of attitude made my protagonist feel like she was much younger and more naïve. At the time my critique partners told me she didn't seem like she was nineteen, and I couldn't figure out why they hadn't "noticed" when I specified her age. But then one of the more analytical of them told me that someone of her age in Varin would have learned quite a bit more caution, fear, and manners... and that those would be on her mind in this scene in addition to a natural fear of the surface and the outdoors. This kind of questioning of very basic assumptions is one reason why it's taken me so long to make Varin work to my satisfaction - so many of the assumptions are different that I can't be consciously mindful of all of them at once. I have to identify assumptions, change them, get used to them and learn to use them subconsciously...and then identify the next level, and go through the process all over again.

Really I don't think characterization, point of view, and worldbuilding can be separated from one another. They are all deeply inter-related. Your character has to "come across" to readers in a particular way within the context of your world. Yes, you won't be able to avoid certain aspects of the real world coming in, as readers bring a lot of real world assumptions to their reading. But that's just another reason why worldbuilding is so important to your character's success (as a character). As you introduce your character, you also have the opportunity to introduce those aspects of his/her social context that provide background for the interpretation of their character that you want readers to take away with them. And in order to do this, you need to get as far as possible outside yourself, your basic knowledge sets, and even your knowledge of where the story is going.

It's something to think about.


  1. Killer, Juliette. It's so easy to slip back into one's own skin when one ought to remain immersed in the character VP. And there's a feedback loop at work also: by remaining immersed in the character VP and experiencing their reactions to and interpretations of their world and relationships through, the VP is further reinforced, sucking the reader further in.

  2. And the author! If you get on a roll, the VP can pull you even deeper in while you're writing it. I really appreciate the comment, Dario. Thanks.

  3. Great post! You hit the nail on the head, and touched a chord with me as I'm struggling with this issue with my main character. Fortunately I've recognized the problem and am able to fix it.

  4. Thanks, Todd! I'm really glad you found this post relevant to your process. Good luck with your project!