Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Deep POV in Characterization

People are the product of their world - part genetics, part environment. We are born blank slates, with equal potential. then we are molded into what we ultimately become. By people, circumstance, experience, training and choices. Our viewpoints, how we see the world around us, is colored by who and what we are. Children see the world differently than adults. A kindergarten teacher is going to view the world very differently than a soldier of fortune.

Then best characters are as three-dimensional as real people, with the triviality stripped away. There are the best and the worst of the human race - sometimes in the same package. They have their own voice, that reflects who and what they are. For me characterization is interdependent with world-building, because the reader can only understand the characters if they can view the world around them.

Culture (Art/Music/Literature)
Education & Training
Society & Family Placement/Position
Rewards & Punishments

Your character is a product of his/her world. Once you've built it, established the history parameters, you're locked in. You must stay consistent. It's unrelenting. You can never step out of character for a single second or you'll lose the reader. The minute you're health nut stops and McDonald's for a Big Mac or your nun blows her stack and cusses, your done for. But it's more subtle than that. Every profession has its own vocabulary. A spelunker (caver) knows the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite. Military personnel using the word "amphibious" are not referring to frogs that hop. Horse people referring to frogs are not talking about small amphibians either, but part of a horses hoof. Horse people tend to verbalize everything in 'horsey" terms.

The truest, easiest conflicts between characters are a lack of empathy/understanding for others with a different POV: "I'm right - you're crazy." Why Patrick Swayze's character in "City of Joy" is so compelling. Jaded disillusioned pediatric surgeon Max Lowe trying to wrap his brain around the pacifist mentality of the locals, teaching them to stand up or themselves even as they teach him to find peace and joy in everyday living.

We've all heard "Showing vs. Telling." The seven deadly sins (words) in fiction are:
Anytime you use the above words, you're taking a step back and TELLING the reader what the character is doing instead if SHOWING him actually doing it:
He wondered what happened to her. How much stronger/more active is it to say: What had happened to her? More direct thought, closer POV, but still passive. Okay if the character is alone, or on the shy side. Even closer POV to have him ask "What happened to you?" This invites character interaction. You can flavor it as gently or as confrontational as you want, depending on the character.

He knew something was wrong.

Something was wrong.
"Somethings wrong."
What was wrong?
"What's wrong?"
Question or statement, either way works, but can you see how it pulls the reader deeper into the character's head? Gets stronger?

Put a sentence in first person, then switch the I to he or she:

She felt the cold rain kiss her skin, and the wind caress her skin. Goosebumps rose and she shivered.

First Person Draft:
Cold rain soaked my clothing, and a shocking tingle skittered along my nerves as the wind caressed the cool damp of my skin. I shivered as my skin pebbled in reaction, and I rubbed my hands up and down my arms trying to smooth away the goosebumps.

Third Person Final:
Cold rain soaked her clothing, and a shocking tingle skittered along her nerves as the wind caressed the cool damp of her skin. She shivered as her skin pebbled in reaction, and she rubbed her hands up and down her arms trying to smooth away the goosebumps.

Again, it's unrelenting. You have to be the character every single moment. Now you know why multiple POV's can be so deceivingly tricky. You have to totally change yourself, your background, your way of thinking, moving, reacting. Want to see what I mean? Watch a master in action - watch Viggo Mortensen first as a Navy SEAL instructor in GI Jane, then as a humble cowboy in Hidalgo and finally as a reluctant king but able warrior in LOTR. Same actor, three different characters and worlds.

I've got three books I swear by:
45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
The Writer's Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon
What Would Your Character Do? Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters by Eric Maisel, Ph.D. and Ann Maisel

I also recommend the Random House Word Menu (ISBN 0435414411) for getting various vocabulary and terminology right.

Once you've filled in the blanks of whatever questionnaire you use for character development, study it carefully. Pick one word that describes what your character IS. If whatever god they worship calls on them at the end of days, how would your character define himself? ONE WORD ONLY! Then put that word on when you write. NEVER take it off. Everything your character says and does, every thought and reaction, stays true to that inner core. You'll never lose your way if you do that. Think of Liam Neeson's character Robert Roy Macgregor in "Rob Roy" explaining "honor" to his sons. "Honor was what he lived and (almost) died by. He expected others to live by the same code he did, and thus was hugely disappointed at times. But he was as straight and true a character as ever existed on screen. Because that single word "honor" was soul-deep, ever-present.

That's what SKINWALKING is, involves. That's what takes a stock character and makes him/her memorable. And memorable characters turn a good book into a GREAT book!

(Check out Renee Wildes' memorable characters in "Marek's New World" available NOW in "Taming of the Wolf" from TWRP...)


  1. Very informative post, Renee! I tend to use those "taboo" words too much - he thought, she wondered, etc. I'm working on it, and thanks for the reminders.

  2. Great post, Renee. You explain things well.

  3. Thanks for the info, Renee. Well said and easy to understand. Best of luck with "Marek." I just started the anthology.

  4. Hi, Renee! Add Jack Bickham's SCENE & STRUCTURE to that list for Deep POV.

    Kress's DYNAMIC CHARACTERS really enlightened me early on. But I couldn't wrap my anthropological brain around my anthropological friend writing characters she couldn't control. LOL. DYNAMIC CHARACTERS nicely burst her bubble.

    I'm also so fond of 45 MASTER CHARACTERS that it's one of over 70 books on writing I've bought/read but call a keeper. It's great to see someone else worried they won't get the historical background of the story right. I never hear anyone discussing that point. ;) But I've been sick and haven't been online much this year. Best of luck with that story! I'm trying to get situated to read that anthology after winning a copy!

  5. Those taboo words sneak into my work all the time. lol

    Lots of information here. Thanks

  6. 45 Master Characters totally ROCKS! It's a concept I can totally wrap my brain around, and I seem to use Artemis a LOT!(LOL) I'm a very visual person, which is why I find myself studying and dissecting movies a lot.

    Hope you gals enjoy Marek & Cheyenne!