Category Archives: Characters

How to write, edit, and bring to life characters of your story.

11 Aug

4 Types of Villain – The Last One is Truly Scary Because He’s So Good

Guest post by K.M. Weiland

Ooh, bad guys. Where would our stories be without their spine-tingling, indignation-rousing, hatred-flaring charm? It’s a legit question. Because, without antagonists to get in our heroes’ way and cause conflict, we quite literally have no story.

So write yourself a warty-nosed, slimy-handed dude with a creepy laugh. No problemo, right? Bad guys aren’t nearly as complicated as good guys. Or are they? I would argue they’re more complicated, if only because they’re harder for most of us to understand (or maybe just admit we understand).

The best villains in literature are those who are just as dimensional and unexpected as your protagonists. They’re not simple black-and-white caricatures trying to lure puppies to the dark side by promising cookies. They’re real people. They might be our neighbors. Gasp! They might even be us!

V8374c_JaneEyre.inddThat raises some interesting possibilities, doesn’t it? It also helps us realize that villains can come in many different shapes and sizes. While studying Charlotte Brontë’s rightful classic Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic), I identified four major types of villain.

The Evil Villain: Mr. Brocklehurst

When we think of villains, this is the type we think of most often. He’s just nasty. He’s cruel, hypocritical, self-serving—and readers just want to punch him in the face. He may take the form of a mafia don, a dictator, a serial killer, or even something as comparatively “harmless” as an overbearing father.

In Jane Eyre, the evil villain manifests deliciously in the tyrannical Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of the horrible boarding school where Jane’s aunt disposes of her. Brocklehurst isn’t evil because he’s out killing, raping, or stealing. He’s evil because of his complete lack of compassion and his sadistic pleasure in his own power. When a young Jane dares to stand up to him, he subjects her to cruel punishment and lies about her to the rest of the school.

Even worse, he pretends he’s a pious benefactor. He has no idea he’s a cruel bum. He believes he and his school are saving these poor girls! Always remember that even the most evil villains will rarely recognize their own villainy. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes of their own stories. Lucky for us, their hypocrisy only ups the ante and makes them more despicable.

The Insane Villain: Bertha Mason

Sometimes villains aren’t so much deliberately bad as psycho bad. They’re out of their heads, for whatever reason, and they may not even realize how horrifically their actions affect others. Psychos are always popular in horror stories for the simple fact that their near inhuman behavior makes them seem unstoppable. If they can’t understand the difference between right and wrong, what chance will your hero have of convincing them of the error of their ways—before it’s too late?

Perhaps the most notable antagonist in Jane Eyre is the one readers don’t even see for most of the book. She’s on stage for only a few scenes and mentioned outright in only a few others. But her presence powers the entire plot. [SPOILER] I am, of course, talking about Bertha, the mad wife of Jane’s employer and would-be husband Edward Rochester, whom he secretly keeps locked in the attic. [/SPOILER] The whole story might not even have happened had Bertha not been bonkers.

The insane villain is a force of nature. Although there will always be motivations for their behavior (even if they’re only chemical), they are people who aren’t behaving badly for sensible reasons. They can’t be rationalized with, and they won’t be moved by empathy for others. Their sheer otherness, coupled with their immovability, makes them one of the most fearsome and powerful types of villain.

The Envious Villain: Blanche Ingram

The envious villain is your garden-variety bad guy (or girl). These folks are a dime a dozen because their motivations and desires are ones almost all of us experience from time to time. Their envy, ego, and personal insecurity drives them to treat others badly for no other reason than spite (whether it’s petty or desperate).

Halfway through her story, Jane Eyre faces a formidable rival for Mr. Rochester’s love—the beautiful Blanche Ingram. Blanche is everything Jane isn’t (she’s the popular girl to Jane’s lunch-table outcast): gorgeous, rich, accomplished, and socially acceptable. On the surface, Blanche has no reason to fear or envy our plain-Jane protagonist. And yet, right from the start, she senses Jane as a threat to her marriage plans, and it immediately shows in her snide, condescending, and sometimes downright cruel behavior.

Envious villains are often those who, like Blanche, seem to have it all. But their glamour disguises deep personal insecurities. No one is ever a jerk for no reason. There’s always something (whether it’s a spoiled childhood or low self-esteem) that drives these most human of all villains. But don’t underestimate the power of their antagonism. Their envy can cause them to commit all sorts of crimes—everything from rudeness to murder.

The Ethical Villain: St. John Rivers

This is my personal favorite villain type—because he’s so darn scary. The ethical villain, like the envious villain, is less noticeable in his antagonism than are evil and insane baddies. This guy isn’t even a bad guy at all. He’s a very good guy. But he’s taken his goodness to the extreme. He’s on a crusade to save the rest of the world—either including or in spite of the protagonist—and heaven help anyone who gets in his way. He’s convinced the means absolutely justify his holy end.

Jane’s cousin St. John Rivers is a marvelous character. He is a man who is determined to live righteously and make his life count for some deeper purpose. He surrenders his own love for the village belle in order to go to India as a missionary. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And yet, his cold-hearted devotion to what he views as his duty, and his determination to make Jane adhere to those views, presents her with her single fiercest and most dangerous antagonist. St. John would never dream of harming Jane or committing a crime, but his fanaticism for his cause very nearly destroys her life.

The ethical villain is ethical. He conforms to most, if not all, of society’s moral norms. But somewhere along the line, those ethics fail to match up with the protagonist’s. That exact point is where he becomes an obstacle (and therefore an antagonist) to the hero. But he also offers us one of our richest opportunities for exploring moral gray areas and deep thematic questions. As such, he is arguably the most valuable villain type in your author’s toolbox.

The possibilities for antagonists are every bit as rich as they are for protagonists. Stop and take a second look at your story’s villain. Does he fit into one of the four categories we’ve discussed here? How can you take full advantage of that category’s opportunities for creating a compelling opponent? Or would your story benefit if you used a different kind of villain? Or maybe more than one kind side by side? The choices are endless!

K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

07 Jul

The Power of BECAUSE: How I Created a Dastardly Villain

I am hard at work on an outline/synopsis sort of thingy for a new trilogy. I wish I could say it’s a true outline or synopsis, but I’m not an outliner. However, I’m not a panster either, to just start writing and write by the seat of my pants. I am a plan-ster, a person who halfway plans and then writes a while, and then plans again from the new and improved position halfway through the story.

While I’m outlining (term used loosely, as just explained), I am finding places where I am stuck. What happens next?

One word is changing things: Because.

My character argues with another BECAUSE. . .

By forcing myself to answer the BECAUSE question, I wind up going deeper into backstory, motivations and emotional depth. Why are they doing such and so? BECAUSE. . .

Backstory. Some of the because has to do with inventing backstory. This week, I found a villain that way. I knew Character V was acting up, but when I added the BECAUSE and started delving into V’s psychology and backstory, suddenly V took on a new–and much more interesting–role in the story. He became the antagonist, which I knew I needed, but I had been avoiding the work needed to figure it out. So, the BECAUSE work became a shortcut to finding out about a villain.

Motivations. For all the characters, the BECAUSE work meant I had to delve into the reasons for actions, the motivations. This deepened the story in important ways, even at this outline level. Partly, I am trying to find connections among characters and how they approach life at interesting tangents. As I worked on the BECAUSE answers, I made sure the answers weren’t clones, but held the possibility of interesting clashes.

Emotional Depth. This is saying the same thing as motivations in a different way, but it’s an important variation. Emotion is hard for me to pull into a story and planning for it up front is essential–or else my stories will be flat and revisions will be deadly. One question that helps here is, “Who hurts the most? X hurts the most BECAUSE. . .”

Fiction is about emotional conflict and how that conflict is resolved (or not). Generally, the person who hurts the most should be the main character. It’s not unusual to have to change the MC to a different character as you uncover and create the characters’ inner lives.

I am still stumbling around inside the ideas for this story. But one word is lighting a path toward actually writing a first draft: BECAUSE.


08 Apr

Complicated Dialogue: Keeping 5 Characters in Line

Today, I’d like to answer a question from a reader.
Shena asks, “I’m writing a story and I have five people who are carrying on a conversation with each other. How do I go about stating each person’s line without constantly using, he said, he replied or using the person’s name to say this person said after the sentence without it being an overkill of redundancy?”

Thanks for the question! You’re right to be concerned about repeating speech tags too often. It’s really a balancing act: on one hand, you don’t want to repeat too often, but neither do you want the reader to get lost. You have limited options, however, and you’ll have to work hard to keep this conversation interesting.

Fiction Notes at

Speech Tags

Speech tags are the “he said” and “she said” that often accompanies dialogue. Notice that when you use HE or SHE, they are pronouns and will refer to the person immediately preceding. That’s important. The pronoun antecedent must be the right person. In the case of five people talking, you’ll probably need to use the character’s name often.\

James said, “Get lost.”
Jim said, “No way?”
Jill said, “Why?”

In the example above, notice that the job is even harder when character’s names all start with the same letter. Make sure your novel is populated with characters who have unique names that stand in contrast to one another. Not Jill and Bill, because they rhyme. Not James, Jim and Jill because they all begin with the same letter and are all one syllable. Instead, choose something like this: James, Brianna, Marguerite, Ally, and Bob.

Actions in the Midst of Dialogue

Dialogue rarely stands alone, though. When you add actions to dialogue, it’s sometimes called beats. This isn’t the same as action beats in a scene, but instead just means the small actions that are interwoven with dialogue. Sometimes those are the same, but sometimes not.

Dialogue beats are the small actions. Scenes demand actions, not just interior thoughts. What are your characters doing? Changing a light bulb.

James took the light hub out of the package and said, “Get lost.”
Reaching in, Marguerite gently took the package from him and said, “No way.”
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why?”

Notice here that Ally has an action, but has no speech tag. Sometimes, you can just omit the speech tag, if a character does something right before or after the dialogue and it’s clear that it’s this character speaking.

This still sounds boring, though. Part of that is because we repeated the structure too exactly in the first two sentences. They have an “action and said,” structure, which doesn’t really work here. Vary the structure of your sentences, sometimes putting the dialogue first, last, or even in the middle of the action.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and snarled, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why should I get lost?” She hesitated and added, “I don’t want to.”
Bob grunted, “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

Notice the variety here.

  • There are some actions without dialogue.
  • Dialogue occurs at the end, the beginning or the middle of the dialogue.
  • After some dialogue, there’s a longer section of actions.
  • I’ve used two substitutes for “said”: snarled and grunted. I don’t like using very many substitutes. Many writers explain that “said” disappears and readers don’t notice it. If you use an alternate word, it should add something important to the story.

Character Tics and Tags

Finally, it’s possible to use character tics or tags to good effect. Perhaps, poor Ally stutters. And James has a high pitched voice.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and whined in soprano, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “W-w-why should I get lost?”
“Especially you!” James squeaked.
Bob threw up his hands. “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said to Ally, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

You can start to see how dialogue can be enliveded with actions, sentence variety and small characterizations. You can devise many more ways to distinguish one character from another and use those traits in creating interesting dialogue. Try varying the character’s typical word choices or dialect. Within a larger conversation, too, you might have one character addressing another, as in Brianna’s aside to Ally and Marguerite’s intimate moment with James.

What’s your favorite way to keep complicated dialogue straight, yet keep enough variety to be interesting?

24 Feb

False Teeth and Blue Eyes: Keeping Track of Characters

Traditionally, novelists have been told to keep track of their characters with a Character Bible. Especially for a series that features the same characters, it’s important that a blue-eye beauty in Book 1 is still a blue-eyed beauty in Book 3. To maintain consistency, authors often need to keep detailed lists of characters and his/her characteristics. Of course, it’s not hard to track main characters, but the minor characters can run together in a blur.

Enter, the Character Bible. Often this is a physical notebook that gives each character a page(s) where you jot down important notes about physical or psychological details, along with notes on his/her back story.

But in these high-tech days, there are other ways to do this.

Spreadsheet. Create a spreadsheet with columns for important details. Rows are the names of the characters. One advantage of this is the ability to sort alphabetically. You can see at a glance if every one of your beauties is blue-eyed or brown-eyed or an interesting mix. It’s clumsy when every character’s name sounds like every other one. Just skim the names and try to make sure that names begin with different letters.

Wikis. Wikis are collections of information that allow collaborative editing. What you care about here, though, is that you can organize the data in any way you wish. Perhaps, you want a page for every character, for every family, for different chapters, or specific to one title in a series. It’s up to you. This article explains four options for a personal wiki.

Keep track of your character's false teeth and blue eyes with these tech toys.

Keep track of your character’s false teeth and blue eyes with these tech toys.

Evernote is a popular software that allows you to capture websites, add files and stay organized and synced across various platforms via the Cloud. Uber-fans of Evernote use it to organize their entire life: they store recipes, organize trips, and keep track of homework assignments. The novelist can use it only for work, or extend it into other areas of life. For keeping characters straight, use tags and keywords for eye and hair color, save photos of clothes that Sally might wear, and clip a website article about grieving. Read more about Evernote.

Scrivener is a writing software that allows you to write without worrying about formatting. But it’s far more than that, with the ability to use tags and keywords, to clip websites and store photos or other research materials. It has the added bonus of outlining with text or a simulated cork board with index cards. Though we’re talking about keeping track of characters, this program goes so much farther, even tracking daily quotas of writing. Writers swear by this one, too.

Intro to Scrivener Video

If you can’t see this video, click here.

Pinterest Boards. If you are visually oriented, try creating a Pinterest board for your series and Pin photos of characters, clothing, recipes, setting, etc. Here’s an example of a Character board, and another, and another. These also seems like great ways to promote your book. If you have a character Pinterest board, please leave a link in the comments.


12 Nov

3 Simple Ways to Use Photos to Establish Characters


I need my characters to come to life quickly for me and this time, I’m trying a shortcut. Photos.

It’s easy to go to or and search for images that might fit your characters. Start with a gender (male/female) and age (child, teen, adult, senior, 30s, 40s, etc).

Ethnic background. For my story, I knew that one character had a mixed-ethnic background, combining Asian and Caucasian heritage. What I didn’t know was how strong the genes might be on either side of that, and how they might change for different Asian/northern European mixes. Even better, I found personal stories of growing up multicultural. Sites like this make it easier to add a unique richness to a character, avoiding stereotypes that might result from a specific ethnic background.

Physical description. Frankly, my physical descriptions have gotten stale. I’m not particularly visually oriented and inventing characters physical looks is usually last on my list of writing chores. I keep thinking, “But it’s the inner character that matters.” Of course. But physical looks matter, too. I took several photos and really observed closely, trying for fresh descriptions. Here are three boys. How would you describe each one to make him come alive as a character?



Historical photos. Photos are gold when you are writing historical fiction. Notice details of clothing, shoes, hair styles, setting, surroundings, etc. and use these details as you write.

1971 Tallahassee Civil Rights march. Notice the variety of clothing--great stuff to add to your story.

1971 Tallahassee Civil Rights march. Notice the variety of clothing–great stuff to add to your story.

What’s your favorite way to use photos to establish characters?

06 Nov

Point of View: Inside a Character’s Head


How does an author take a reader deeply into a character’s POV? By using direct interior monologue and a stream of consciousness techniques.

This is part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • Going Inside a Character’s Head, Heart and Emotions

    IvanOmniscience.Jauss says, “In direct interior monologue, the character’s thoughts are not just ‘reflected,’ they are presented directly, without altering person or tense. As a result, the external narrator disappears, if only for a moment, and the character takes over as ‘narrator.’” (p. 51)

    Here, “. . . the narrator is not consciously narrating.” In much of IVAN, he is consciously narrating the story. Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish the difference because the character and narrator are the same, and it’s written in present tense (except when he is telling about the background of each animal). This closeness of the character and narrator is one reason to choose first-person, present tense. But there are still times when it is clear that IVAN is narrating his story.

    But there also times when that narrator’s role is absent. In the “nine thousand eight hundred and seventy-six days” chapter, Ivan is worried about what Mack will do after the small elephant Ruby hits Mack with her trunk:

    “Mack groans. He stumbles to his feet and hobbles off toward his office. Ruby watches him leave. I can’t read her expression. Is she afraid? Relieved? Proud?”

    The last three questions remove the narrator-Ivan and give us what Ivan is thinking at the moment. The direct interior monologue gives the reader direct access to the character. With a third person narrator, those rhetorical questions might be indirect interior monologue; but here, because of the first person narration, it feels like direct interior monologue.

    Or, in the “click” chapter, Ivan is about to be moved to a zoo:

    The door to my cage is propped open. I can’t stop staring at it.
    My door. Open.

    The first two sentences still feel like a narrator is reporting. But “My door. Open.” feels like direct access to Ivan’s thought at that precise moment. He’s not looking back and reporting, but this is direct access to his thoughts.

    A last technique for diving straight into a character’s head is stream-of-consciousness. Jauss says, “. . . unlike direct interior monologue, it presents those thoughts as they exist before the character’s mind has ‘edited’ them or arranged them into complete sentences.” (P. 54)

    When Ivan is finally in a new home at a local zoo, he is allowed to venture outside for the first time. The “outside at last” chapter is stream-of-consciousness.

    Bird. . . .

    What the reader feels here is Ivan’s wonder at the great outdoors. It’s a direct expression of Ivan’s joy in being outside after decades of being caged. We are one with this great beast and it gives the reader joy to be there.

    Or look at the “romance” chapter, where Ivan is courting another gorilla.

    A final note: Sometimes, an author breaks the “fourth wall,” the “imaginary wall that separates us from the actors,” and speaks directly to the reader. This is technically a switch from 1st person POV to 2nd person POV. But it is very effective in IVAN in the second chapter, “names.” Here, Ivan acknowledges that you—the reader—are outside his cage, watching him. It was a stunning moment for me, as I read the story.

    “I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you also probably think we can’t walk upright.
    Try knuckle walking for an hour. You tell me: which way is more fun?”

    Do stories and novels have to stay in one point of view throughout an entire scene or chapter? No. Not if you are thinking about point of view as a technique to draw the reader close to a character or shove the reader away. You can push and pull as you need. You can push the reader a little way outside to protect his/her emotions from a distressing scene. Or you can pull them into the character’s head to create empathy or hatred. You can manipulate the reader and his/her emotions. It’s a different way of thinking about point of view. For me, it’s an important distinction because my stories have often gotten characterization comments such as , “I just don’t feel connected to the characters enough.” I think a mastery of Outside, Outside/Inside, and Inside point of view techniques holds a key to a stronger story.

    In the end, it’s not about the labels we apply to this section or that section of a story. These techniques can blur, especially in a story like IVAN, written in first person, present tense. Instead, it’s about the reader identifying with the character in a deep enough way to be moved by the story. These techniques–such a different way to think about point of view!–are refreshing because they give us a way to gain control of another part of our story. These are what make novels better than movies. I’ve heard that many script-writers have trouble making the transition to novels and this is the precise place where the difficulty occurs. Unlike movies, novels go into a character’s head, heart and mind. And these point of view techniques are your road map to the reader’s head, heart and mind.

    This has been part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series:

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • 05 Nov

    Point of View: Outside/Inside a Character’s Head

    Partially Inside a Character’s Head: OUTSIDE AND INSIDE POV

    How deeply does a story take the reader into the head of a character. Many discussions of point of view skim over the idea that POV can related to how close a reader is to a reader. But David Jauss says there are two points of view that allow narrators to be both inside and outside a character: omniscience and indirect interior monologue.

    This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Here are links to parts 1 and 3.

    These posts are inspired by an essay by David Jauss, professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About Craft. I am using Ivan, the One and Only, by Katherine Applegate, winner of the 2012 Newbery Award as the mentor text for the discussion.

    IvanOmniscience. Traditionally, “limited omniscience” means that the narrator is inside the head of only one character; “regular omniscience” means the narrator is inside the head of more than one character.

    I love Jauss’s comment: “I don’t believe dividing omniscience into ‘limited’ and regular’ tells us anything remotely useful. The technique in both cases is identical; it’s merely applied to a different number of characters.”

    He spends time proving that regular omniscience never enters into the heart and mind of every character in a novel. A glance at Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE, with its myriad of characters is enough to convince me of this truth.

    Rather, Jauss says the difference that matters here is that the omniscient POV uses the narrator’s language. This distinguishes it from indirect interior monologues, where the thoughts are given in the character’s language. This is a very different question about POV: is this story told in the narrator’s language or the character’s language?

    In IVAN, this is an interesting distinction because Ivan is the narrator of this story; it’s told in his voice. But as a narrator, there are times when he drops into omniscient POV. In the “artists” chapter, Ivan reports:

    “Mack soon realized that people will pay for a picture made by a gorilla, even if they don’t know what it is. Now I draw every day.”

    Ivan tells the reader what Mack is thinking (“soon realized”) and even what those who purchase his art are thinking (“even if they don’t know what it is”). Then, he pulls back into a dramatic reporting of his daily actions. Notice, too, that he makes this switch from dramatic POV to omniscient POV within the space of one sentence. And the omniscient POV dips into two places in that sentence, too.

    Because Mack is Ivan’s caretaker and has caused much of Ivan’s troubles, the reader needs to know something of Mack’s character. This inside/outside level is enough, though. The author has decided that a deep interior view of Mack’s life isn’t the focus of the story. It’s enough to get glimpses of his motivation by doing just a little ways into his head.

    Indirect Interior Monologue

    Another technique for the narrator and reader to be both inside and outside a character is indirect interior monologue. Here, Jauss says that the narrator “translates the character’s thoughts and feelings into his own language. “ (p. 45) The character’s interior thoughts aren’t given directly and verbatim. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one.

    Interior indirect monologue usually involves two things: changing the tense of a person’s thoughts; and changing the person of the thought from first to third. This signals that the narrator is outside the character, reflecting upon the character’s thoughts or actions.

    They are all waiting for the train. (dramatic)
    They were all waiting reasonably for the train. (Inside, indirect interior monologue)

    The word “reasonably” puts this into the head of the narrator, who is making a judgment call, interpreting the dramatic action.

    Interior indirect monologue most often seen with a third-person narrator reflecting another character’s thoughts. But in Ivan, we have a first-person narrator. Applegate stays strictly inside Ivan’s head, except for a few passages where Ivan reports indirectly on another character’s thoughts. Because the passages are already in present tense, she doesn’t have that tense change to rely on.

    Here’s a passage that could have been indirect interior monologue but Applegate won’t quite go there. Stella is an elephant in a cage close to Ivan.

    “Slowly Stella makes her way up the rest of the ramp. It groans under her weight and I can tell how much she is hurting by the awkward way she moves.”

    By adding “I can tell. . .” it stays firmly inside Ivan’s head. He tells us that this is true only because Ivan makes an observation. The story doesn’t dip into the interior of the other characters.

    But there are tiny places where the interior dialogue peeks through. This from the “bad guys” chapter. Bob is Ivan’s dog friend; Not-Tag is a stuffed animal; and Mack is Ivan’s owner.

    “Bob slips under Not-Tag. He prefers to keep a low profile around Mack.”

    Ivan can only know that Bob “prefers” something, when he, as the narrator, dips into Bob’s thoughts.

    But indirect interior monologue is also used by a first person narrator to report his/her prior thoughts. When the first person narrator tells a story about what happened in his past, he is both the actor in the story and the narrator of the story. Ivan tells the story of his capture by humans over the course of several short chapters. It begins in the “what they did” chapter:

    “We were clinging to our mother, my sister and I, when the humans killed her.”

    While Ivan’s story is most present tense, this is past tense because Ivan is reporting on prior events. Even here Applegate refuses to slip into interior indirect monologue. Instead, she just presents the facts in a dramatic manner and lets the reader imagine what Ivan felt. It’s interesting that withholding Ivan’s thoughts here evoke such an emotional response in the reader.

    On the other hand, in “the grunt” chapter, Ivan tells about his family. Again, he is the narrator telling about a past event when he was a main character of the event:

    “Oh, how I loved to play tag with my sister!”

    This could be called direct interior thought, but because he’s narrating a past event, it’s indirect interior thought. Otherwise, he would say, “Oh, how I love to play tag with my sister!”

    Or from the “vine” chapter, where Ivan talks about his thoughts after being captured by humans:

    “Somehow I knew that in order to live, I had to let my old life die. But sister could not let go of our home. It held her like a vine, stretching across the miles, comforting, strangling.
    We were still in our crate when she looked at me without seeing, and I knew that the vine had finally snapped.”

    If this was direct interior, it would be:
    “Somehow I know that in order to live, I must let my old life die.”

    Applegate could have chosen to stay inside Ivan, but here, she pulls back so the reader isn’t fully inside this emotionally disturbing moment. She uses indirect interior monologue, instead of direct.

    As Jauss says about a different passage, but it applies here, “This example also illustrates the extremely important but rarely acknowledged fact that narrators often shift point of view not only within a story or novel but also within a single paragraph.” (p.50)

    This has been proclaimed a mistake in writing point of view, but Jauss says it’s a normal technique. We dip into Mack’s point of view, but then pull back to a dramatic statement about what Ivan is doing.

    Indirect interior monologue often includes “rhetorical questions, exclamations, sentence fragments and associational leaps as well as diction appropriate to the character rather than the narrator. “ (p. 49) In one of my novels, I used a lot of rhetorical questions as a way to get into the character’s head and an editor complained about it. Now, that I know why I was using it (as a way to manipulate how close the reader was to the character), I could go back and use a variety of techniques. Knowledge of fiction techniques is freeing! Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to go deeply into a character’s head, heart and emotions.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Join us tomorrow for the final part of the series, Inside: Going Deep into a Character’s Head.

    This has been part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

    04 Nov

    Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head


    A story’s point-of-view is crucial to the success of a story or novel. But POV is one of the most complicated and difficult of creative writing skills to master. Part of the problem is that POV can refer to four different things, says David Jauss, professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About Craft.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Here are links to parts 2 and 3.

    Definitions of Point of View

    1. Your personal opinion. You might say, “From my point of view, that’s wrong.”
    2. The narrator’s person: 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.
    3. The narrative techniques: “omniscience, stream of consciousness and so forth”
    4. “. . .the locus of the perception (the character whose perspective is presented, whether or not that character is narrating)” (p. 25)

    The first definition is a personal, not a literary one, so it doesn’t apply here. The second definition (the narrator’s person) is perhaps the most widely discussed, but Jauss says it isn’t helpful to a writer as s/he approaches a story. In fact, what often happens is these definitions collide and the generally accepted wisdom is that you must stay in only one POV, you can’t use some techniques in some POVS, and the narrator is a side-issue. These conventional rules, though, conflict with actual practice, says Jauss. Further, they prevent writers from controlling one of the most important aspects of fiction: how close the reader feels to the characters. (p. 26, 36)

    I love the idea that point of view is a technique: it is one of the tools in our writer’s tool box that we can pull out as needed to accomplish something in a story. I love the idea that point of view allows you to pull the reader closer to the characters or to shove them away from the character. Right away, Jauss has me. And it only gets better from here. More complicated, but better.

    IvanLet’s discuss point-of-view, and use Ivan, the One and Only, by Katherine Applegate, winner of the 2012 Newbery Award as the mentor text for the discussion.

    Traditional Point of View

    Jauss points out that traditionally point-of-view is discussed in terms of person, and defined by the pronouns used.

    First person uses I, me, my, myself and so on; the story is told from inside the narrator’s head and the reader is privy to all the narrator’s thoughts and emotions.

    Third person uses he, she, they and so on; the story is told as if there was a camera above the narrator’s head and the reader knows only what the narrator sees. A close third person allows the narrator’s thoughts and emotions to be conveyed to the reader.

    Second person is seldom used and talks directly to the reader using you as the main pronoun.

    POV techniques include the omniscient POV, which dips into different character’s heads to give the reader a look at the thoughts and emotions of multiple characters; the camera can change from one reader’s head to another, as the story demands.

    Point of View as Technique for Getting into a Character’s Head

    Point of view, according to Jauss, should be classified by how far into the character’s heads the reader is allowed to go. He proposes a continuum from fully Outside POV, to a POV that is both Outside and Inside and finally a POV that is fully Inside.

    Outside, Outside & Inside and Inside. That’s the three new categories of POV. Jauss gives examples of these POV from what we would traditionally call first-person and third-person POV; I’ll be giving examples from the “first-person” book, Ivan, the One and Only. Ivan is undoubtably written in what most would call 1st person POV. The silverback gorilla, Ivan, is narrating the entire story. As such, it has a simple vocabulary and uses simple sentence structure to match the intelligence of an animal; but this animal has a big heart and that’s where technique allows the writer to manipulate how close the reader comes to the character.

    OUTSIDE POV: What the Reader Infers about Character

    Dramatic. Jauss says, “There is only one point of view that remains outside all of the characters, and that’s the dramatic point of view. . .”

    Jauss defines this as a story in which the narrator is telling a story from outside all the characters AND uses language unique to the narrator. Notice that for Jauss, the narrator is an important part of distinguishing the POV technique used.

    Dramatic storytelling is the the traditional show-don’t-tell kind of storytelling, where some insist that you must show everything and the reader should understand the action and emotions simply from what is shown.

    In the “Bob” chapter of IVAN, we find an example of this, where a small dog interacts with the gorilla:

    “He hops onto my chest and licks my chin, checking for leftovers.”

    Even though the narrator is Ivan and he is including himself in the action, it is still dramatic action. Nothing in this statement gets inside of Ivan’s head; it’s purely dramatic. In fact, most of the “Bob” chapter is dramatic telling from Ivan’s point of view. He dips into his own feelings (indirect or direct interior dialogue—see discussion later) a few times, but it’s mostly dramatic.

    One common demand for a dramatic POV is that the reader understand the character’s emotions only from the actions. If angry, a character might tighten his fists, or his brow might furrow, or he may bare his teeth. Jauss says “the story that results is inevitably subtle. Careless or inexperienced readers will often be confused by stories employing this point of view.” (p. 40)

    What a breath of fresh air! Some writing teacher emphasize this Show-Don’t-Tell to the extreme and yet Jauss says the results are “inevitably subtle.” Because I write for kids, I must question whether “subtle” is what I want! I’ve long thought that the Show-Don’t-Tell is more a plea for stronger sensory details than for implied emotion, and have modified it to say, Show-Then-Tell-Sometimes. What I mean is that the sensory details should put the reader into the situation; but after you’ve done that, sometimes you must interpret the actions for the reader.

    “Jill slapped Bob, leaving a red palm print on his cheek.”

    That uses sensory details; it shows, and doesn’t just tell. But we don’t know WHY Jill slaps Bob. Did she do it to wake him up after he passed out?

    “Desperate, Jill slapped Bob, leaving a red palm print on his cheek.”

    That word, “desperate,” pulls the sentence out of a strictly dramatic telling and starts to drill down into Jill’s emotions. However, we need that word in order to understand the story.

    This technique isn’t used extensively throughout IVAN, but here’s one example. The small elephant, Ruby, is watching the older elephant Stella do her tricks with Snickers the circus dog.

    “Ruby clings to her like a shadow. Ruby’s eyes go wide when Snickers jumps on Stella’s back, then leaps onto her head.”

    We aren’t TOLD that Ruby is scared of the dog; instead, “Ruby’s eyes go wide.” The reader must infer Ruby’s emotions from that bit of action. And here, it works well. We don’t need an extra adjective for interpretation. Applegate does an amazing job of walking this fine line and keeping the action strictly dramatic.

    Dramatic storytelling is like watching a play on stage, or watching a movie. We can never go deeper into a character’s point of view, because the camera can’t go inside a character. The closest we can come is the constant monologues that are a technique of reality TV, where a character talks to the camera and interprets a sequence of actions or explains their thoughts during a sequence. Even that doesn’t take you inside the character like the next techniques can. For the Outside/Inside techniques, join us tomorrow.

    This has been part 1 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head.

    07 Aug

    Telling the Other Side of the Story: Switching Point of View

    Question: How do you tell a story and make sure that both sides get heard?

    Answer: This is a time when switching point-of-view might be helpful.

    The default for telling a story is 3rd-person point-of-view. You tell it like you are recording from a camera that sits right above the point-of-view (POV) character’s head. Usually the POV character is the main character, but it can be a friend or some other character. The key is the pronouns: you use he, she, they, them.

    If the camera is above the character’s head, you can’t tell what the character is thinking. That’s 1st person POV, which uses I, me and my pronouns. There is a close 3rd person POV which lets you imply the character’s thoughts.

    1st: I sift through photos until–I stop and hold up THE photo. It shows me, sitting on my Dad’s lap. I was just five and it was the day before he disappeared.

    3rd: She shifted the photos, one by one. Then she held one up and shifted to let the light fall on it better. Yes, it was Dad and she was sitting on his lap. She remembered that day because it was the day before her Dad disappeared.

    Which do you like better? It’s a personal thing in some respects and also a question of which one serves your story better.

    But back to the question: How do you make sure both sides get heard? Usually, you’ll create a story with two POV characters, one the hero(ine) and one the villain(ess). POV switches typically happen at chapter breaks, that is you’ll have one chapter from the Hero(ine)’s POV, then a chapter from the Villain(ess)’s POV. You can alternate as needed and you don’t have to make it evenly split between the two POV.

    The advantage of this is that you can explain the deep issues that each character has from their POV. The difficulty of this is creating two characters that the audience will truly care about and will root for. You want the audience to like the characters. Is your villain a likeable sort? Or at least a sympathetic sort?

    Also, consider what the audience will know if you use this strategy. The reader will be in on every nuance of the villain’s plans. How will you create surprise? You can build suspense, which is slightly different. For suspense, the reader knows something will happen and hopes against hope that the character will avoid the problem. That sort of thing will work with an alternating chapter strategy.

    Sometimes, the POV switch will take place within a chapter, but usually, the sections are set off somehow, maybe an extra space or asterisks or other visual cues that something has changed.

    What rarely works is changing within a paragraph.

    In the end, how do you know if alternating chapters will work? You try it out.

    24 Jul

    Dialogue: Make Each Character Unique

    Dialogue, what characters say, is an important element in any story.
    DH, a reader here, is puzzled how to switch from one character to another.

    Here’s an example she gave:
    “Hey Danielle! Come check out this new book I got!” says Viola. “Okay just a sec.” says Danielle.

    See, what I’m asking? I need to know what ways are there to talk between characters without having to say says Danielle, or says Viola or says Darcy.

    Dialogue is what characters actually say and it is set off with quotes. Each time a character finishes talking and another begins, it is a new paragraph. If the character’s speech is a sentence, then it ends with a comma that goes inside the quote. If it is a question or exclamation point, that goes inside the quote instead of the comma. Generally, stories are told in past tense, so you would use “said” instead of “says,” which would be used for first person stories. And finally, I tend to put the character’s name before the said/says. In some ways this is a personal preference, but some references consider “said Viola” to be more juvenile than “Viola said.” Decide which you like and stick with it. It’s also a pet peeve for a character to constantly call the other person’s name. I don’t talk to people that way and characters shouldn’t either.

    “Hey, come check out this new book I got!” Viola said.
    “Okay, just a sec,” Danielle said.

    That’s a good basic dialogue structure but now there are things that can help the story move along smoothly. First, is a beat or some sort of action. You can also insert the “she said” into the middle of the dialogue to vary the rhythm of the exchange.

    Viola held up a shiny book. “Hey, come check this out!”
    “Okay,” Danielle said. “Just a sec.”

    Let’s add some setting.

    From across the library, Viola held up a shiny book. “Hey!” she called in a stage whisper. “Come check this out!”
    “Okay.” Danielle shoved back her chair and said, “Just a sec.”

    It is also important to distinguish each character simply by the way they say something.

    Viola: Hey, come check this out!

    What are some possible responses for Danielle?
    “Sure thing.”
    “Why? Boring.”
    “Girl, you know I don’t like books.”
    “I’m busy.”
    “Not now.”
    “Go away.”
    (Silence. She ignores Viola)
    “Be quiet.”

    Which one would THIS Danielle be most likely to say? It’s a matter of character. What is her attitude about reading and books and being in a library? What is her emotional state? Is she mad, sad, bored, or engrossed in a book of her own? All of those things will infuse the dialogue with something unique. And the reader should be able to tell Danielle’s voice from Viola’s. Because you also know all that about Viola and that should be in what she says and how she says it.

    From across the library, Viola waved the new Harry Potter book. “It’s here! Come check it out.”
    “Okay.” Danielle yawned, then put down her worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. “I’m coming.”

    Dialogue must do more than just have people talking. It must also characterize and show attitude and move the story along. It’s worth the time it takes to explore options.

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