Thursday, September 26, 2013

Call it Like You See It! Exploring Narratives and Point of View


Call It Like You See It!

Exploring Narratives and Point of View

By Amy Maida Wadsworth
My husband is a football fan. And me? I generally enjoy football because it’s easy to fall asleep to on a Sunday afternoon. Last season, however, piqued my interest. The NFL’s referee union went on strike, and everyone—fans and players alike—complained more than usual about referee calls. My husband explained that inexperienced, scab referees were determining game outcomes with egregious calls.
Of course, this makes an author think. A referee’s calls depend entirely on his point of view—his keen senses, what those senses observe, and how he applies his knowledge of the rules. Of course, a single referee is limited. That’s why a bunch of referees consult each other and use consensus to establish truth—or as close to the truth as they can get.
What does that have to do with an author? Simple: A narrator’s point of view (POV) determines a story just as clearly as a referee’s point of view determines his calls.
What is the difference, then, between the narrator and the protagonist? It’s a question that stumps many novice writers, but one that will determine much about the presentation and voice of a story.
Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint discusses this very question. Card is a master at creating sympathetic characters, and most of his book explains that creation process. The last few chapters focus on narrative voice, which is just as important as creating characters. Creating the character is only part of the process—once you’ve created your character, you’re still faced with the quandary of how to present your story to your audience—in other words, how to define your narrator.
Here’s why that’s so important: Defining your narrator will make the difference between a nice idea and a stellar novel. Your narrator’s connectivity to the story is key to the kind of story he will tell.
Here we’ll explore three types of narrative voice and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Through it all, you have one very important thing to determine: is your narrator a participant in the story or an observer only?

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR

The omniscient narrator is an observer of the story. He sees the story as a whole, knows all of the characters, can get inside any character’s head, and can see how all of the events culminate in the story’s end. The omniscient narrator tends to take on a moralistic tone at times because of his POV. Being omniscient, he is all knowing—a god. An omniscient narrator would say, “Jerry didn’t realize this would be his last bite of caviar.”
The best recent example of the omniscient narrator is Lemony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket is a character in his own right, though he doesn’t participate in the story. His love for the characters is apparent. He adds a touch of humor as he occasionally talks directly to the audience, warns about an upcoming scene that could be frightening for more sensitive readers, or defines an interesting word. He adds to the story through his interpretation and his telling of the story. When I read these books, I picture one man sitting at a typewriter, telling the story he knows and remembers well. Another way to view the omniscient narrator brings it much closer to home—you, the author, have a voice of your own.
The advantage? The omniscient narrator can reveal information whenever it needs to be revealed. This allows you, as the author, a great deal of flexibility.
The disadvantage? Since the omniscient narrator is removed from the story, so is the reader. The reader is less able to attach to or sympathize with one character and experience the story as it happens. In short, stories told by an omniscient narrator can lack emotional resonance.

FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR

With a first-person narrator, the narrator is a participant in the story. In fact, the narrator is the protagonist. The story told in first person made a popular resurgence with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The pronoun used to refer to the protagonist/narrator is I.
The advantage? The emotional removal of an omniscient narrator doesn’t exist in a first-person narrative. The narrator has the best seat in the house for everything that happens. Therefore, so does the audience. We feel the character’s emotions and experience her pain. In short, we become Katniss Everdeen.
The disadvantage? Changing point-of-view characters is frowned on when you choose to write in first person. The Hunger Games is told completely from Katniss’s POV. She has to find out what happens to the other characters through observation or conversation. She never knows what goes on in the other characters’ heads. This makes it challenging for you to reveal information to your audience—but it also makes the story more realistic.

THIRD-PERSON LIMITED NARRATOR

This is the most common type of narrator. The point-of-view character is the narrator, and the pronouns he or she are used to refer to that character. This creates the same kinds of intimacy as a first-person narrator.
The advantage? You aren’t limited to the protagonist’s POV. If you want to show a scene the way the villain sees it, you can. Or if you have two protagonists, you can alternate between them. This means the reader knows more about what is happening than the characters do, but it is hoped that the reader is still able to sympathize with and root for at least one character.
The disadvantage? Pronouns can sometimes be difficult to manage. You have to stay on top of things to ensure that your POV is clear. If you change too often or in a haphazard way, your narrator takes on an omniscient tone and you lose the connection with the characters. You should change POV only at the end of a scene or at a point where your character has come to a decision and set a new goal. Not only does this minimize confusion, but it also creates hooks that keep your reader engaged.

ACTION STEPS

Answer these questions to find out what kind of narrative voice will work best for your story:
  • Which is strongest: your characters or your plot/story? (If your characters are strongest, stick with first person or third person. If your plot is stronger than your individual characters, create an engaging omniscient narrative voice.)
  • Is your narrator part of the story or an observer? (If your narrator is part of the story, first or third person is best.)
  • Which characters have the most to lose? (If several characters are experiencing loss, use third person. If one character loses everything, first person allows the most emotional connectivity.)
  • How many characters change substantially through the course of the story? (If there are several, stick with third-person narrative. If one is experiencing most of the change, use first person.)
  • Do you need to change point-of-view characters to tell your story effectively? (Consider mystery as an example; many mysteries have an occasional chapter from the villain’s POV. When using first person, you can never change POV—and it can be difficult to reveal necessary information.)
How did this exercise change your thoughts about your narrator? Or what is your favorite type of narrator—to read or write?  Have you read any novels that didn’t follow these guidelines but were still well written and engaging? 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Superheroes and the Villains Who Make Them


Superheroes and the Villains Who Make Them

(In honor of Salt Lake Comic Con)
By Amy Maida Wadsworth
I’ve always related to Spider-Man—not because I’m particularly brilliant or fascinated with arachnids, but because there is a side of me that often feels socially awkward, and it takes a mask (fiction, maybe?) to make me feel like I understand people and have some control over my environment. I also relate with underdogs. In fact, most of my favorite fictional characters are underdogs—the underestimated Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), the overlooked Julian Delphiki (Ender’s Shadow), and the pushed-aside Connor Lassiter (Unwind).
Psychoanalyze that.
Superhero stories have stood the test of time because all of the characters are relatable—they represent an accelerated, concentrated version of the everyday good guy. Iron Man is a wealthy playboy who seems cool and collected—but, deep down, he’s scared of vulnerability and loss. Superman wants to save the world—but realizes that in the end, he can’t save everyone. Batman is a vigilante who wants to use his fortune to end crime—but he’s constantly being hunted by police. These heroes struggle with their faults, flaws, and shortcomings while they try to make the world a better place. Sound familiar?
Inevitably, a pesky villain rises to the occasion. As Mr. Incredible says, “I feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for ten minutes?” Despite the constant mess, there would be no hero without a villain. The villain forces the hero to rise from obscurity as he provides the moment of change that essentially creates the hero. The villain makes the story. Or breaks it.

So What Makes a Good Villain?

  1. Your villain should have a heartbreaking past. Dr. Otto Octavius (Spider-Man’s Doctor Octopus) killed his own wife in a lab experiment. Magneto (X-Men) was a holocaust victim as a boy. The Joker (Batman) has such a troubled past that he only wears it on his sadistic face—a pale, smiling mystery. When we learn about a villain’s past, we can’t help but understand his craziness. It’s almost as if he touches the crazy in all of us and thus creates sympathy.
  2. Your villain should be as strong as your hero. Here, we’ll bring up Red Skull. His nemesis, Captain America, was treated with super-soldier serum and vita-rays, which basically bulked him up and gave him incredible endurance and an extremely high metabolism. Red Skull was treated with a similar serum. But this treatment accentuates the traits that already exist in the man—so Red Skull becomes a totalitarian super-bully while Captain America becomes the ultimate soldier, built to defend American ideals of freedom. The two are created in similar ways, and their abilities are similar. The greatest differences between them are their values and ideals.
  3. Your villain should be sympathetic, smart, and strong, but misdirected. Here, we have to bring up Lex Luthor. Superman’s infamous nemesis, Lex sees himself as the hero and Superman as the intruding, alien villain with the power to rule the world. Lex’s determination to rid the world of Superman makes him maniacal, and he doesn’t hesitate to sink to diabolical levels to accomplish his goals. And, let’s face it—Lex is severely outgunned (maybe even an underdog?). If Superman wanted to put an end to Lex, it wouldn’t take much effort from his laser-eyed, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, man-of-steel self. Deep down, Lex is afraid of what his nemesis could do. (In a psychological tangent here, Lex is probably projecting on to Superman—deep down, Lex knows that if hewere all-powerful the way Superman is, Lex would rule the world with an iron fist.) One could argue that if Lex truly understood Superman’s nature, he might not fight in the first place. He might be able to trust the stranger from Krypton. A villain’s misdirection of energy and ability is what makes his plight almost sad to witness. We can’t help but wonder what would happen if he would only use his abilities to accomplish positive things.

Action Steps: 3 Things to Do Now!

Here are some tricks to improve your villain.
  1. During your character development phase, create the hero and the villain together. You can even give them the same goals—but twist your villain’s approach to or motivation for accomplishing that goal.
  2. List your hero’s weaknesses and create a villain who can take advantage of those weaknesses. Likewise, your hero’s strengths should counteract your villain’s weaknesses. The two characters fit together like puzzle pieces and thus become evenly matched. If this feels like too obvious a method for character creation, assign a numerical value to abilities that you see in your characters and make sure those numbers match—give them the same amount of advantage.
  3. Awaken your inner geek and spend some time online looking at comic book villains. The great thing about comic books is that they’ve been around for years. The characters are established, explored, and debated by fans of the graphic novels and the movies. These conversations explore characters on deep, psychological levels, and much can be learned about audience expectation, character progression, story arc, and the psychology behind being a villain. There are tons of fan websites, but I particularly enjoy this site by IGN Comics.
Share your thoughts! What do you think about these expectations for a good villain? How do you apply these concepts to smaller-scale villains in a different fiction genre?
For more great articles about fiction writing, as well as professional editing services, visit www.eschlerediting.com