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Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction) Paperback – March 15, 2005
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Of the sixteen chapters that comprise the book, the first seven explore character development. Chapter 1 describes character in terms of general types. The book goes on to discuss the importance of how one introduces key characters. The next three chapters drill down into the challenge of building an authentic character: 1.) What is the character like deep down? 2.) Are the motives of the character clear-cut or complex? 3.) How can one show that the character has changed over the course of the story, and, if they don’t change, will the reader be satisfied? Chapters 6 and 7 investigate specialized types of characters (i.e. genre characters such as in romance, mystery, thriller, or sci-fi [Ch. 6] and in humor [Ch.7.])
Chapters 8 through 11 examine emotion and how it’s conveyed to the reader. The means by which writers communicate emotion include: dialogue (Ch. 8), metaphor, symbolism, and sensory experience (Ch.9.) Chapter 10 delves into special cases that are common in fiction but which require unique consideration (love, fighting, and dying.) Frustration has its own chapter (Ch.11,) and that may seem odd, but one must remember that a story is one barrier after another being erected in the way of the character’s pursuit of his or her objective.
The next four chapters present information to help the writer evaluate different approaches to viewpoint. Not only are there various pros, cons, and considerations one must take into account when deciding upon viewpoint, each approach has a several variations. The first of these chapters (Ch. 12) outlines the broad-based considerations. The next three chapters deal with first person (Ch. 13), third person (Ch. 14), and omniscient points of view (Ch. 15,) respectively. (The rarely used 2nd person point of view is also discussed briefly, but largely as a warning.) The last chapter explores how to make it all work by way of what Kress calls the “fourth persona.” Early in the book, one is told that the writer must simultaneously embody three personas (i.e. the writer, the character, and the reader.) Kress’s “fourth persona” is that of the critic, and it becomes necessary once one has drafted a story and character.
The book has a few extras. At the end of each chapters there are several (usually 4 to 6) exercises to help writers understand the concepts through practice. The chapters each have summaries, and at the end of the book there’s a summary in the form of a checklist. That is about it for ancillary features. There are a couple graphics in the form of pictures of a “mini-bio” and an “emotional mini-bio.” These are single page fill-in-the blank summaries that help one build a character that has depth and an authentic feel.
I found this book to be interesting and educational. The writer uses examples from a number of popular commercial and literary fiction authors. There’s no real need to be familiar with any particular author, but being familiar with them might present one with additional insights. The book is readable.
I would recommend this book for writers of fiction.
Character. Kress sees character defining fiction because character differences shape plots, settings, and writing styles, even if the influence cuts both ways (2-3). These subtle influences require that the writer adopt different perspectives, that of the writer, the character, the reader, and the critic, but at different times (3-4, 221). She sees four sources for interesting characters: “yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about, and pure imagination.” (5)
An important aspect of character is whether they are “stayers” or “changers”. Kress writes: “Changers are characters who alter in significant ways as a result of the events of your story.” By contrast, stayers may be heroes, like James Bond, who remain remarkably unflappable over time and always get the villain or may “come to grief because of their blindness.” (10) Likewise, motivations that characters exhibit may either be unchanging or change over the course of the story. Thus, four basic character/plot patterns emerge from the interaction of personality and motivation:
1. Personality stable, motivation stable;
2. Personality stable, motivation changes;
3. Personality changes, motivation stable; and
4. Personality changes, motivation changes (67).
The key to any change in personality or motivation is to make it believable.
Emotion. Kress sees emotion derived “from two other critical concepts: motivation and backstory” where “motivation means that someone wants something” (35-36) and backstory explains why. The backstory can be given in: brief detail, an inserted paragraph, a flashback or an expository dump (39). Motivation gets interesting when a character has conflicting or mixed motivations that help define character (52-54).
Expressing emotion is tricky because characters differ in ethnicity, family background, region, gender, education, and circumstances (106-108). In view of these differences, writing dialogue is tricky—we do not speak the same and we reveal emotions to just anyone. Because many people are uptight about expressing emotion, Kress cites several occasions that might allow emotional dialogue to proceed, like keeping a journal, writing a letter, talking to a pet, therapist, or priest (114-115). Another way to open up emotions is to infer them through the use of metaphors and symbols (120-121, 124).
In her inventory of emotions, Kress highlight frustration as important in plot development and authenticity in character development. Kress writes:
“Because frustration is such an important emotion in fiction, how well you portray it can make the difference between characters that seem real and those that seem cardboard.” (150)
Kress sees: “four modes of conveying emotion: action, dialogue, bodily sensations, and character’s thoughts” (46) which implies that frustration must too be displayed in various modes.
Point of View. Because we are only really privy to our own emotions, fiction fascinates us because we get to experience someone else’s (158) and writers get to choose both which character’s POV is highlighted and how much story time it gets. Kress suggests these criteria in choosing a POV character:
“Who will be hurt by the action? . . .
Who can be present at the climax? . . .
Who gets most of the good scenes? . . .
What will provide an interesting outlook on the story? . . .
Whose head are you most interested in inhabiting during this story?” (160-161)
After choosing a POV character, the next step is to decide how the author will appear in the narration—“first person, third person, omniscient, or (rarely) the ‘novelty’ points of view: second, plural first, plural third, and epistolary.” (163)
While most of these POVs are well known, in the case of the third person, which is most common, Kress further delves into the question of distance—close third, medium-distance third, and distant third—which deals with the level of intimacy that the author presumes. (185) Close third allows the author to read the character’s thoughts, almost like first person, while distant third views the character as external and more formal. (188) Middle-distance third remains somewhere inbetween. The clincher is that the author can move between these three categories, although too much jumping around is confusing. (190) Kress suggests sticking with one perspective per scene. (194-195)
Nancy Kress is a writing instructor with several writing books and a novelist, specializing in science fiction and fantasy. Awards that her books have won include:
“six Nebulas (for ‘Out of All Them Bright Stars,’ ‘Beggars in Spain,’ ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison,’ ‘Fountain of Age,’ ‘After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,’ and ‘Yesterday’s Kin’), two Hugos (for ‘Beggars in Spain’ and ‘The Erdmann Nexus’), a Sturgeon (for ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE).”
Her most recent degrees are from the State University of New York at Brockport, where she had earned an M.S. in education (1977) and an M.A. in English (1979).
Nancy Kress’ book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, is a how-to-book for fiction writers. Nonfiction writers, like myself, can also benefit both from becoming better informed about descriptive writing and from learning to write tighter stories, which appears in most nonfiction writing. Kress’ writing is accessible, a joy to read, and displays a wonderful knowledge of classical fiction writing.
Kress, Nancy. 2004. Dynamic Characters. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Kress, Nancy. 2011. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Kress’ book focuses on the integration of her three titular elements: characterization, emotions, and viewpoint. It helps (in my opinion) the reader with the “how” to write emotion, while Maass’ work focuses more on “where” and “what” to do with your existent draft. Both books cover similar terrain (e.g., character arcs, characters’ inner and outer worlds, etc.). Kress’ book is of course a bit broader than Maass’ book, as it also delves deeper into characterization and viewpoint. Kress’ book may also be a bit more basic than Maass’, as it going into the such basics as voice/viewpoint, etc. Maass is an agent as well as a novelist, and I think that is why his book (in my opinion) is more for revision than first drafts.
Both books are excellent, and well worth your time and dime. But if you’re still in the throes of your first draft, you might wish to start with Kress’ book.