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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing stronger characters

This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography
This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography

Last time we talked about the history and evolution of POV (Point of View) and why certain types of POV might not be the best choice for a modern reader. We also talked about what is often called “deep POV” which, until I looked it up one day? I thought was just tight writing. Who knew it had a name?

Today we’re going to dive deeper into deep POV.

Wow, deep.

Yes, there are style changes we can make, like removing as many tags as we can and ditching extraneous sensing and thinking words. But deep POV is strongly tethered to characterization. Good characterization. Before we get to that, let’s talk about what we often do when we’re new.

The Fishy Flashback

When we’re new writers, we often don’t understand plotting. We don’t yet have the skill set to structure a work spanning anywhere from 60,000 to 110,000 words (depending on genre). This is NOT a criticism. Yes, I had to write stories and essays, but the longest thing I ever wrote was 32 pages. And that was a term paper and not fiction.

Yet, I was dumb enough to believe that because I made As in English, that clearly I was NYTBSA material. Pshaw! I knew how to write *rolls eyes*.

Um, no. NO.

And if you won’t cop to this I will because I have no pride. New writers often get an image, a scene, a snatch of dialogue and then GO. Often the first hundred pages of a first-time novel is almost all flashbacks. Going back in TIME to know whyyyyyy. Why is this character the way he/she IS? What happened in childhood, young adulthood, that random college party back in ’03?

It’s also where we get brilliant ideas like journals and letters and coming to grips with “the past.”

Just so y’all know, no one cares about the past unless it impacts the future. Not in fiction and, bluntly, not in life. The past has already happened. In real life, we have to pay people by the hour to care about our past. They’re called psychiatrists.

Thus, the past (in a vacuum) is not interesting fiction. By definition, it has already happened. There is no pressing danger and so it becomes, as the famous late Blake Snyder would say, “Watch out for that iceberg! It is moving at an inch a year, but watch out!”

 

Flashbacks are a BIG sign of weak writing. And, since this is NOT a blog about why most editors want to stab flashbacks in the face…we’ll go over that next time :D.

****And don’t argue in the comments that Such-And-Such uses loads of flashbacks and now is taking baths in diamonds and crisp Benjamins. Anything CAN be done and often what y’all might think is a flashback is actually an unorthodox plotting structure. Same with use of journals and letters. So hold the torches and pitchforks until next time. I love you *SMOOCH*

Anyway…

A lot of new writers go about a hundred pages with no clear story, a crap-ton of flashbacks and thus create what is called the “fish head.” Unless you are my weird Scandinavian family, what do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw away. We DO NOT INGEST THEM.

The fish head is not necessarily “bad”, it just doesn’t belong in the novel and good editors will cut it. Often the fish head is the writer getting to know the cast, which is actually VERY important, lest we have a book of talking heads who all sound like the author.

It is essential to know our cast if we hope to successfully write “Deep POV.”

KNOW Your Cast

There are all kinds of ways to get to know our characters. I often write detailed character backgrounds before starting a story so it doesn’t become a fish head.

Why we need to know our characters is that deep POV is a reflection of the inner self, how that character sees the world, responds, evades, processes, etc. It is also a reflection of personal history and relationship dynamics.

*cue brain cramp* *hands paper bag*

It’s okay. Breathe. We’re going to unpack this.

Reflection of the Character

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky’s “Peaceful hearts Doctor” courtesy of Eva Blue.

Back when I used to run a weekly workshop, I had writers do a little exercise to help them learn POV and also strengthen character-building skills. I gave this scenario:

We have a family of four—Mom, Dad, a grandparent (either gender) and a teen (either gender) who has spent a year saving for a family vacation. On the way to their destination, the vehicle breaks down. What happens and tell it from the perspective of EACH family member.

Every week, writers showed with the perspective of one of the four. We had ASTONISHING creativity. Some families were aliens on an interstellar vacation. Some had wandered into cartel territory. One family went back in time. But no matter where the story was set, the characters were recognizable in their roles. The perspective of a grandparent was markedly different than the teen.

The language was unique, the dialogue and what that character might notice or feel. What was upsetting?

While a mother might be thrilled to have the family together for a vacation, the teen might be sulking in the back upset that there is no wi-fi. The mom might be worried they will have to go home while the teen is happy because she doesn’t want to be trapped in a car with “old people.”

Who These Characters ARE Changes the Story AND Deep POV

When we layer in some background, the characters (and consequently the story, problems and conflict) all change drastically.

What if dad is finally home from his forth tour in Afghanistan and has terrible PTSD?

What if Mom is a closet alcoholic?

What if the teen is recently in remission from Leukemia?

What if Grandma is a tireless flirt who dresses in short skirts and hits on every man in a ten-mile radius?

What if the teen is an asthmatic and forgot his inhaler?

What if Granddad has early on-set Alzheimer’s?

What if the teen has been recruited for a mandatory deep space mission by the New Earth government and will never see the family again?

What if the teen was adopted and the purpose for the trip was to meet the child’s birth mother? How would this impact the emotions of those in the vehicle?

What if there used to be TWO children and one had died in an accident a year previously?

Do you see how by changing WHO these people are, this cannot HELP but affect everything else?

If Dad has PTSD, he might jump at every lump of roadkill because that’s how insurgents hide IEDs. If the family is stranded and Mom can’t get to a liquor stash, she might start getting belligerent or, left too long, start going through DTs. What would an addict notice? Likely nothing beyond how to get a fix.

While a kid in remission with a new lease on life might enjoy being broken down in the middle of nowhere (appreciating the little things in life) the addict would be hysterical.

All of this will impact Deep POV because we are in the HEAD and EMOTIONS of the character.

Let’s pick on Mom for an illustration. I’m riffing this, so the writing is just an illustration. Just roll with it.

Geiko Caveman.
Geiko Caveman.

Kidding! Lighten up. You seem tense.

Example One:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one she’d carried everywhere for fifteen years. She hated she was happy the old van had finally given out. Her husband stared, bewildered at the smoking engine. Other than car trouble, he seemed fine. Fine. How can he be fine?

She glanced back at her daughter, the living reflection her of all her dreams and failures. She’d wanted a baby more than life. Every night on a freezing floor. One miscarriage after another and then came a tiny bundle of everything she’d ever longed for.

That woman hadn’t wanted her. That woman had abandoned her. That woman was Gretchen’s real mother and now Gretchen wanted to meet her. Real mother, like hell. And I’m a real astronaut.

How had she failed? If she’d been a good mother, Gretchen would have forgotten that woman and they wouldn’t be here.

“You okay?” Her daughter bent between the seats and kissed her cheek. “You said this was okay, that we could do this. You’re sure, right?” A wary smile revealed new braces, the braces Fifi paid for with money she’d saved for a new van.

“I’m fine, Honey.” She crumpled the baby picture and opened the van door. She needed air.

***

Example Two:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Do you see how changing WHO Fifi is changes everything? Everything she is sensing, feeling, thinking. Being in the emotions of a heartbroken mother who feels betrayed is a very different experience from being in the head of a sympathetic addict who’s struggling to get clean and stay clean.

***

Both women are impacted by the daughter. One Fifi is hurt by the daughter, the other Fifi finds hope in the daughter. Both women are conflicted. One is tormented with feelings of failure and betrayal and the other is tormented by failure, but very real physical problems of addiction that impact the story.

Deep POV has thrust us into the head and emotions of both women. We feel what they feel. The author is invisible because there are no tags. The sensations are raw and visceral because we have gotten rid of the coaching words.

Instead of:

Fifi felt millions of insects boiling beneath her skin….

We get right to it.

Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin…

The sensation is CLOSER. There is no psychic distance. She isn’t thinking she is going to lose it. She isn’t wondering if she can keep it together. She is experiencing everything real-time and up-close.

Instead of:

Fifi thought, What am I doing?

She just does. We KNOW Fifi is thinking because we are camped in her head.

Deep POV is Akin To Method Acting

When we know our characters, who they are, how they came to be, the formative experiences, we can then crawl in that skin and become that person. By us becoming that character, we then have the power to transport our reader into the skins we have fashioned.

I hope this helps you guys understand the magical, mystical Deep POV and now you’re all excited about writing stronger characters.

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

Winner for May is Ugirid Haprasad and the Dojo Diva winner is Amy Kennedy. Please send 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl.com. Congratulations!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook