Monday, January 15, 2018

Easy Ways to Screw Up a POV Character

I found a self-published work with a beautiful cover that I just couldn’t pass up. The characters on the front had great expressions, their personalities glowing through a moment of high action. Regardless that it didn’t necessarily reflect the prose inside, I still thought of it some months after I first saw it, returning to the author’s blog multiple times. The more that I learned about what he was doing on a superficial level, the more that I wanted to like it. Massive world, several sequels, it was the sort of thing I wanted to obsess over.

However, upon reading it, there’s some problems.

The book is beautiful, formatted well, polished with nary a typo in sight. The characters have their unique characteristics, the wording and flow is fine, and there is still hope for it yet.

It’s just that the narration, and more importantly the opinions of the P.O.V. character, is annoyingly, unintentionally objective.

For this post, what I refer to as the P.O.V. character is the person’s perspective which dictates a) what gets described, b) in what order, and c) how.

If the story is told in first-person (I, me, mine), the P.O.V. character is obvious: Watson in Sherlock Holmes, Bella in Twilight. Most novels in third-person (He, she, they) tend to follow the protagonist and explore his view on the world—Harry in Harry Potter. Even though Harry isn’t technically the one telling the story, the way things are painted how he sees them. Uncle Vernon probably wouldn’t describe himself as “a big beefy man with hardly any neck.” Sometimes you’ll find an omniscient Point of View, in which the telling of the story is either multiple P.O.V.s (also known as head hopping) such as in Pride and Prejudice or The Stand, or where the narrator has a different character onto itself, such as in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or (in fleeting moments) The Hobbit.

Purely objective P.O.V.s are not very common in successful works. It’s hard to make the book interesting that way, and can be difficult to describe certain details completely neutrally, especially if you are trying to have an emotional impact. Even the difference of “He hit the other car” and “He smashed into the other car” can be considered leading the witness. It’s limiting and rarely effective. I believe Tobias Wolff’s works might be an example, but I haven’t read them in a long time, so I could be mistaking his non-invasive prose for an objective Point of View.

In the case of the book I’m reading now, and many works I’ve looked at by newer authors, I find that there are certain choices—or rather, lack of choices—when it comes to the P.O.V. that cause the voice and prose of the work to come off as fictionalized and two-dimensional. Certain traits and flaws are important when it comes to the way we describe things, and it’s not uncommon for manuscripts to ignore them.

Impulsivity versus caution.

Another name for this article I considered was, “There is No Universal Truth,” but I didn’t think anyone was going to give a shit about my denouncing of reality. But that’s really what the vast majority of this post is about.

One of the problems the P.O.V. characters had was a sixth sense for Truth (with a capital T). They had some sort of meta-foresight enabling them to know who to trust, who to dislike, and readily make accurate decisions/opinions with very little information to support it.

This character is likable. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks about how likable he is. This character is impressive. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks how impressive he is. This character is smart. This character is admirable. So on and so forth.

The most frustrating aspect was the fact that everyone agreed with each other. For the first seven chapters, so far there is no social conflict. Despite claiming to be a racist land, everyone likes everyone, except for the one ‘annoying’ character who everyone agrees is annoying.

Problem was, the P.O.V. character’s take on things was severely incongruent with mine as a reader. I wasn’t remotely impressed with the hero he just met. I didn’t feel like he’d talk to the woman long enough to determine how much smarter she was than ‘all the other women he’d met.’

It was clear that this character was telling me what the writer wanted me to believe, that the P.O.V. was too easily jumping to the correct conclusions. Not only that, but no matter who we were following, they all did it.

It’s possible that a character can read people quickly, but that should be a defining characteristic with some explanation behind it. Sherlock Holmes, in the television series, convincingly shows an audience that he can do just that. There’s also some downsides, like his inability to empathize. It creates a character who is impressive, but somewhat alienating.

But for the vast majority of characters, it’s important not to allow them to react to information they don’t have. They can’t know that the woman in the shop is going to be their best friend, so they’re less likely to remember her name or pay so much attention to what she looks like or her racial (elvish) heritage. They can’t realize that this far superior warrior is going to be friendly and down to Earth before they’ve even spoken to him, ready to agree to join up.

A defining characteristic is how a character reacts to the unknown. It is perfectly fine for a character to be impulsive—to ask to join arms the second the badass says his name, to fall in love with a tavern girl for all her ‘intelligence’ conveyed in two sentences. Readers like impulsivity, and there is an amazing dumb luck that follows decisiveness, even in the real world. But the readers should see that. They should be aware that this character is jumping to conclusions. They should see how unnerved his fellow comrades—more cautious than he—are, how they are discomfited by his rashness. Most importantly, impulsive people make mistakes. They trust the wrong people, go down the wrong path, and when they mess up, they tend to fall harder than someone who carefully considered the options.

Confidence versus insecurity.

In the same vein, it’s important to recognize the impact that confidence and insecurity can have on your point of view.

What annoyed me most about the first few chapters was just how positive everyone was. There is this epically awesome warrior and not a single one of them—not a single one of the peasants or caravan owners—has any remotely negative reaction to him. Everyone, including the protagonists, love him. I know from reading the author’s blog that this is not some sort of set up for a villain. He’s just a really cool guy that everyone likes without a pang of jealousy or resentment.

Except, you know, me. The reader.

I wouldn’t say that I’m jealous of his easy popularity; it’s obviously fiction. I just find it incredibly disingenuous to those of us who have dealt with jealousy, messing up, and a lack of instantaneous faith. The more everyone likes him, the more I dislike him. I can’t imagine that not one other person in the world has the same sort of cynicism as me.

Now, each of the P.O.V./main characters has their own insecurities. The elf who gushes about the human warrior the most (despite being a level-headed, perceptive character), just messed up in the same battle that the human gained the most praise for. Lloyd has all the right opinions and all the right moves, and yet Glo merely is proud of the human’s overt insistence on racial tolerance. Why would I be thinking about how I almost killed us? You’re so not racist! How novel! How goodly!

Confidence and impulsivity tend to go hand-in-hand. Caution is often misconstrued (or just construed) as insecurity.

It’s not that understanding your character’s opinion on himself will drastically change his interpretation of situations, but it can make a description and interaction all the more layered. Even if you want Glo the incompetent wizard to like Lloyd the epic fighter, understanding why he doesn’t feel in competition with him, or why, if he does, it doesn’t bother him, can dictate more interesting emotions behind the P.O.V.’s opinion. It’s not that Glo respects Lloyd for announcing how not racist he is, it’s that Glo is relieved Lloyd isn’t judging him.

Optimism versus pessimism.

This is probably the most relevant and therefore the most controversial.

Ask the majority of people if they consider themselves an optimist or a pessimist, and they’ll tell you they’re a realist.

I’m not going to go into my whole tirade, but it’s extremely important that you recognize your P.O.V. character is not a realist. They are not omniscient, they can’t predict the future, rationality is not a feeling. Controlling feelings are different from the absence of feelings, and it’s important to know which one your logically-motivated character is operating on.

Sometimes, your character is going to be wrong. A lot of times, there is no right answer.

If I took your character by the hand and led him into a room filled with stuff, without telling him why he was there, what do you think he would come out remembering?

People only have a select number of items they can recall from short term memory. For very intelligent people, it tends to be seven. Seven non-sequitur items. However, everyone can remember a narrative, piecing in details that make sense with that narrative.

So while he might only be able to remember seven titles of books on the bookshelf, he can remember the type of books the room had and logically recall what titles would fall into that category.

A positive person might say, “This guy is super smart and loves Russian novels!”

A negative person might say, “This guy is super pretentious and loves Russian novels!”

The opinion, or narrative, about what kind of person the owner of the bookshelf is, actually helps both parties remember more and fill in the blanks of what they can’t recall. It’s not just that the subsect of “Russian” novels ties together otherwise random books, but the categories of smart and pretentious will help them remember other “like” novels that are equally snobby despite alternative heritage.

When telling a story, the writer has to pick certain aspects to describe, and others to leave out. We can’t paint every leaf on a tree, so which leaves we choose to talk about will tie into this narrative that the P.O.V. character tells himself about the situation. Basically, we often describe what he would remember.

Is your P.O.V. character an optimist or a pessimist? Are their conclusions about people judgmental or trusting? These opinions help create the story and tone as a whole, as well as use each description to teach you something about the narrator. The important aspect of this, however, is that not everyone is going to agree with them, and sometimes their conclusions will prove faulty or problematic.

A narrator’s reliability varies depending on the book that you’re trying to write, but one of the benefits of switching P.O.V.s is that you can tell all sides of the story without having unnaturally omniscient characters.

Their type of intelligence.

I don’t exactly believe in stupidity, but I will admit some people are more discerning than others.

It’s important to consider your P.O.V. character’s intelligence, their strengths and their weaknesses, and factor that into how they see things. If your narrator is a child, as an obvious example, they’re more likely to take people at face value. He said he’s not racist, so clearly he isn’t! Immediate loyalty from someone inexperienced isn’t so odd.

If your narrator is good at picking up on patterns, but bad at reading facial cues, the reasons he knows to trust someone are going to be different (and more interesting) than if he was strong in body language. When he comes to the conclusion that ‘this is a likable guy’ isn’t going to be the same as it is for the other members of his party, but it definitely should make sense for the reader.

Whatever the P.O.V. character’s social strengths are, the author uses that to “show” the audience what he wants them to think instead of having the narrator tell the reader the Truth of the situation. If the character is good at reading body language, describe what physical cues were given that made him trust the other person. If he recognizes an intelligent person based solely on the information she has at her fingertips, have her express that information and let his response—verbal or physical—convey his surprise.

Truth is, none of the characters in this book showed any signs of social strengths or limitations. Lloyd the human was kind of embarrassed by the attention—noted by the P.O.V. character—but no one struggled with true humiliation, disagreement, awkwardness, horniness, loneliness, introvertedness, shyness, attention-whoring, suspicion, pushiness, misunderstanding, jealousy, resentment, pettiness, competitiveness, lashing out, or any of the daily conflicts we experience in real life. They had no social weaknesses, really.

No. In all their early chapters of teaming up, drinking beers, fighting orcs, traveling, only one character gives any sort of derision in a few ignored sarcastic remarks. They all get along. They are all on the same page. They all have the same goals. The only person who shows any true sort of resistance is the guy who sort of tried to haggle how much he should get paid for a job. (He never got a word out. Everyone just knew what he was doing before he could speak.) And yes, of those who witnessed it, they were all equally irritated by a completely reasonable action.

Their comfort zone.

How someone feels about a place or situation is drastically going to influence everything they describe. Understanding the mood of your character will tell you what he pays attention to. It will dictate the chaos/excitement of the scene. Telling a story from the Point of View of someone who loves the limelight and meeting new people shouldn’t be the same as if they’re dying of crowd-induced claustrophobia.

This is best left to the author to decide, but in my case, I would assume that a party lover isn’t paying as much attention to the details. He’s going to talk about the positives, the gist, the big events, the most exciting things. Someone who hates crowds and attention may be hyperaware. He might note every single person in the room, he might muddle information trying to take it all in, he might misinterpret a lot of hostility.

“Bright lights flickered across the smiling faces.”

“Bright lights elongated sharp features in flashes.”

Sometimes it’s not a matter of overall attitude of the world. Even the greatest pessimists can enjoy themselves from time to time. Moreover though, our judgments on things are affected by our fears, and whether that be insecurity about being in a new situation, your P.O.V. character might not like a perfectly fine person for reasons that have nothing to do with that person.

The characters in the novel in question kept level heads regardless of the situation. They are always respectful and open-minded, positive and friendly, handle all social interactions with successful decorum. They are perfectly perfect young gentlemen.

And they are obnoxious.

All characters are at their best when showing their flaws, but especially when it comes to your narrator, make sure to remember that, unless he is literally omniscient, he can only be the voice for his own Point of View, he can’t speak for the other characters, he can’t speak for the reader, and he should never be speaking for the author.

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