Friday, February 25, 2011

Absolutes in writing--POV

Tiger showed me this article ( earlier about point of view shifts, headhopping and authorial intrusion.

There is exactly one paragraph I sorta-kinda agree with in this article.
There are a lot of best-selling writers who use headhopping, authorial intrusion, and other viewpoint bugaboos. If it works for them, fine. Usually, they can do this because they are skilled at creating seamless transitions from headhop to headhop. However, you don't have that experience.Without that experience, you're better off avoiding headhopping altogether. Remember, you have an obligation to write the best book possible. If you don't have the skill to tell readers about multiple viewpoints within one scene, then don't even try it. 
 I really wish the author made that caveat at the beginning of the article rather than the end, because I'm slightly more disinclined to chew her face off now, but I'm still going to do some gnawing, because I hate absolutes in writing style. Do I have some absolutes? Yes. They are few and far between, but they are present. But not, typically, in matters of style, least of all POV.

This article claims that "headhopping" (switching POVs multiple times in succession in one scene) is, essentially, Completely Wrong and Bad. So is authorial intrusion, which I gather the author takes to mean stopping action to tell the reader about a character's background or whatever. I think author voice is important, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The categories first, second, and third person came, essentially, from the New Critical approach to literary criticism. This was a very scientific way of looking at the story that sought to categorize and label everything so it can be observed within a story. You might recognize this approach from high school: discover a text's meaning(s) (though usually only one) by "breaking down" a story into observable parts. POV is one of those observable parts. As annoying as New Criticism is, it's persisted because we like the idea that we can label things. Teachers especially like it because it gives them something to teach, and it gives students something to remember and model. When I say something is third person limited, my students can tell me why by observing the text.

In reality, though, POV is never that cut and dried. It's almost impossible to narrow down POV into five neat categories (first, second, third limited, third omniscient, third objective). I much prefer to identify authorial distance--that is, how far the author's voice is from the narrator's. In third omniscient, the author's voice is almost synonymous with the narrator's--or at least, the narrator is a persona belonging to the author. In third limited, the narration "should" (at least according to teachers/books) be filtered through one character's perception at a time. In second person...well, who's the narrator? Is it the author telling you what you are doing, or is it you? In first person, is the narrator the author, or is it the character, or somewhere in between? It can depend entirely on how much the author chooses to step in. And this can change moment to moment. Sometimes the author will pop in to make an editorial remark and then back out.

Hemingway typically writes in third person objective. People do stuff. People say stuff. There's almost no author voice to tell us how things are. We're supposed to judge for ourselves. Perfect example: "Hills Like White Elephants."

But then, in the last paragraph.
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
Dude. He used an adverb. "Reasonably." This is a violation of the authorial distance he's established throughout the entire story. Adverbs are always someone's opinion. In this case, you could interpret it as either the character's voice or the author's voice. They were waiting. How? Reasonably. This is the only adverb used like this in the story. No, really. Check it out. (

Was this a mistake? Come on, it's Hemingway. Of course it wasn't. But neither can you say that this sentence, this word, is pure third-person objective any longer. It complicates the issue of purity in POV. And it's remarkable how effective that violation/complication can be.

Let's take first-person POV as another example. I really don't like it in general, at least for longer texts. My reasoning is, nobody is a completely reliable narrator, especially when it comes to him/herself. It's almost impossible to see character growth in first person simply because, honestly, how often are we aware that we've changed? In order to show character growth, the author has to step in. Has to. This might come in the form of another character stepping in and saying, "Dude, you've changed" (awkward and I hate it) or subtle cues to help illuminate readers. But being in one character's head offers an extremely narrow view of the world that must must must be mitigated by the author.

And then you have stories like "A Rose for Emily." The story is told by the collective "we," referring to the townspeople, but Miss Emily is the protagonist. WTF? How do you label that?

Complicated. Un-simple. None of it is wrong, either.

To recap/expand: POV is anything but simple. There are more than four categories of POV. Authorial distance plays a part in complicating POV to an infinite degree and this is not a bad thing.

So I challenge anyone to say headhopping is wrong. It can be wrong for a particular story in the sense that it isn't effective, but it isn't outright wrong. Neither is "authorial intrusion." Sometimes your reader needs to know something and you have to tell them. There are more and less effective ways to do this, but it's never just, "Oh, don't ever do this."

I understand where the author of the article is coming from. I tell my creative writing students not to do certain things (present tense, headhopping are two examples) because inevitably they will do it exactly wrong because they don't understand it. You have to be able to control it and make it work for you. And typically, no, beginning writers don't have that kind of control. The problem is that saying "never do this" makes people take that advice literally and propagate it. "OMG headhopping! That is wrooooong." Well. It works for the story. The author did it consciously. Why is it wrong? It's a rare "writing principle" indeed that will hold up 100% under close scrutiny.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What you can get away with

I've written a couple things with Tiger Gray in the past couple of weeks that made me feel like I was personally responsible for the deaths of at least a million kittens, and another scene yesterday that made me feel like I had spent the night curb-stomping puppies. I made Tiger uncomfortable with it. I consider this a weird kind of success, because it's meant to be uncomfortable.

The scenes in question involve a character who is absolutely, positively and in all other ways repugnant to me. I've written some twisted, nasty bastards in my time, but this one gets to me. You can read more about him in this post. He isn't the protagonist, however, so he can get away with being an unbelievably evil doucheface.

Switching gears slightly (I swear this is going somewhere), I read a post by Tiger the other day about rape in fiction. And it reminded me of an experience I had betaing for someone who decided to use rape as a major plot point in a (romance) book. More specifically, this person's protagonist date-raped his love interest.

Now, to me, this is not okay on a number of levels. 1) in the romance genre, 1a) it's really, really hard to get away with rape as a major plot point, period. 1b) especially when it's one of the romantic pair. 1c) especially when it's both of them. 2) The rape was portrayed as a stepping-stone for the characters' relationship. WAT. Yes, I said that, and I'm not exaggerating. 3) It's really hard to get away with your protagonist doing shitty things in any genre. Much less rape.

Sympathy Through Consistency

Why is it so hard to get away with this? Because readers still expect protagonists to be "heroes" in some way. Even anti-heroes may not have a lot of heroic qualities, but when it comes down to it, they always do the "right thing," even if it's for the wrong reasons. You may not like them, but they are sympathetic because they adhere to our built-in sense of moral rightness in some form or fashion.

Inevitably, someone will argue with me about this until the cows come home. But why shouldn't protagonists be able to do shitty things? Look at Dexter! Yes, well, I will point out that in order to be consumable by the public, Dexter still has to have human qualities like a code. He doesn't rape anyone. He doesn't kill children or anyone who doesn't "deserve" it (though there's plenty of moral gray area there). And Dexter is also up front about the fact that he's a serial killer.

This novel character, however, was a squeaky-clean romance hero before he up and date-raped somebody. I mean, from a solely logical standpoint, rape isn't about sex--it's about power. If you (and I'm using "you" as the hypothetical author here) set up a character who had issues with power, I might believe he could rape somebody. I mean, seriously, it takes a seriously fucked-up person to think rape is an acceptable course of action. But if your character is seriously fucked up and you make me believe it, I might be able to sympathize with him.

My point here is that you cannot let your otherwise agreeable protagonist do shitty things and still expect him/her to be sympathetic. If you want a character to be sympathetic, don't then shatter the reader's connection with the character by showing them shocking behavior that doesn't really match up with the reader's previous impressions. Be up front.

Sympathy Through Justifiability

Going back to Dexter again, viewers can, at some level, justify Dexter's actions. Yes, he's a sociopath who kills people and then cuts them up into pieces  Yes, he really is monstrous. But we're able to justify murder of "bad people." We can understand how that might be acceptable. When heroes in classical tales or modern books kill people/beings, it's perfectly acceptable of those people/beings oppose the hero. Anti-heroes, especially, can get away with a lot. They can torture, maim, imprison, beat, maroon, abandon, neglect, whoever, as long as whoever they're torturing/maiming/whatever is playing for the opposing team. We might be aware that doing these shitty things isn't something a really nice person would do, but because the actions are established as justifiable, we can think, well, that's okay.

Rape, however, is never justifiable. I feel safe in assuming everyone who isn't a psychopath agrees with me.

It doesn't really matter if rape can be justified using your internal story logic. Okay, so the rape has to happen in order for one character to realize his feelings for another. In a romance plot, that's pretty important. But here's where real life intrudes upon fiction.

Your protagonist is a rapist. He does not get to exist as a romantic character anymore. End of transmission.

Sympathy and Respect

I sympathize with someone (real or fictional) when I can respect them and their motives. If a protagonist does something truly awful, but s/he has other respectable qualities, I might still be able to respect him/her. It depends a great deal on what that is. It has a lot to do with understanding, too. If I can grasp, at least on an intellectual level, why a character does something, and that understanding doesn't involve the phrase "the author is an asshole," I can respect him/her.

Now, this understanding doesn't come from the character him/herself. Note I said "the author is an asshole" not "the character is an asshole." Your character can be so full of shit s/he's choking on it. My characters are regularly chock full. But you have to help me understand what's going on that makes your character(s) that way. If you pull shit out of thin air and stuff it down their throats, I'ma be unhappy.

If I can't understand your character or think your reasoning is full of shit, I won't respect him/her. If I don't respect him/her, I don't sympathize with him/her. And then you've lost me.

To sum up:

  • Your protagonist can't rape somebody in romance.
  • Your protagonist can't do something "bad" that's wildly out of character and expect to remain sympathetic.
  • Your protagonist can do shitty things if you can make them justifiable.
  • Rape isn't justifiable.
  • Sympathy comes from respect, which comes from understanding, which comes from the author.
I think you can get away with a lot in fiction and people will still read. But you, as the author, have to prove to the reader that there's a reason they should let you get away with it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Yay! I did my first ever author interview with Amara from Amara's Place. You can find it here. We were introduced through a mutual friend, and she is awesome.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Feeling a little frustrated with myself today. I'm already uncomfortable with the way this scene is going and I'm not sure what to do about it. I think it's mostly that I don't really know if I need it, but I should have it. Which probably means I need to go back and re-evaluate why, because my reason is "this character hasn't made an appearance in too long." I try to make every scene have more than one function. This scene kind of came out of nowhere as I was writing another one, and another reason for my frustration is that I'm getting impatient to get toward the end.

Even as I'm typing this, though, I think I might have worked out another function. Still not sure if I need the scene, though. Argh. Oh well. I'll stand by my policy of letting someone else (beta reader or editor) decide that. Sometimes I just don't have the distance I need from my own writing to make a judgment call either way.

I'm having an irritable day all around. Irritable mostly with myself.