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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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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.
Throughout the chapters, Kress uses examples very effectively. When she refers to classic characters, she usually uses several, so that if you haven’t read all of the same books, hopefully you recognize at least one or two (she also describes them). If you haven't read any of the books, you'll be at a disadvantage. But I'd think reading a synopsis online would give you enough of an idea of, say, Anna Karenina or Mr. Darcy to understand what Kress means.
Since this is a book that I already know I'll be going back to again and again, I appreciate how well-organized it is, with clear sub-section headings within each chapter so you can quickly find the part you want to re-read. At the end of each chapter, Kress gives a recap of the chapter and includes several exercises to try. I didn't see much point in the recaps, but they didn't take up much space. The exercises were hit and miss. I usually don't actually do exercises anyway, but I like to think them through. When the exercises were specific to the characters in my WIP, they made the most sense to me. And some of the exercises about observing others' behavior (e.g., in public, or interacting with friends) and thinking about how that applies to writing were also interesting. However, many of the writing exercises were completely unrelated to the reader's WIP characters and seemed off-track; presumably anyone reading this book wants to apply it to a current project.
Overall, it's a great craft book, and I would definitely recommend it.