Thursday, April 22, 2010

Filtering and Point of View

I love this old Larson cartoon. Here is a guy expending a lot of energy lecturing his dog--and by the time the dog hears it, it is only "blah, blah, blah, Ginger."

But it got me thinking--which can be a dangerous thing--that we all filter the world. Two people never see or hear the same thing. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. We see and hear only part of what is going on, and that is filtered through our experiences, expectations, and even our prejudices. No two people perceive the same reality, and that can lead to conflict. Conflict in real life is not so hot; conflict in fiction is golden.

And the filter of the POV character should come across in the narration and description. One of the best examples that I've seen in mystery was from Wilkie Collins The Moonstone. Collins told the story of a missing gem through three first-person narrators, each having a very different POV which created a slant on their story. The first was an old rambling servant, loyal to a fault. He could see no possibility of wrong in the family. The second narrator was a distant relative, a religious zealot. She did see wrong in the family, and set out to convert them. The third was a young man who was in love with the daughter. With each narrator, you got a different view of the major characters, depending on the particular filter.

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

Sometimes we think of POV as simply 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, limited or omniscient, but it is so much more than that. Does one character love rural life, while the other adores the city? You might end up with a Green Acres scenario, where two people living in the same place see radically different things. One sees dirt as a symbol of living independently, returning to a simpler life. While the other sees it as--dirt.

The description of the physical environment is often dependent on the filter used by the POV character. And sometimes by his or her mood.

Is there a beautiful sunset? Or is night rapidly approaching?

Are children playing gleefully nearby? Or are snotty-nosed brats breaking his concentration?

Are pure white snowflakes gently falling? Or are the frigid streets treacherous and lined with slush?

Is the proverbial cup half empty or half full--and is that a good or bad thing?

David Swift, director and writer of the Disney film Pollyanna, placed this phrase on her locket: "When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will." (fictionally attributed to Abraham Lincoln) That film contrasted the jaded filters of adults with the youthful, idealistic and 'glad' POV of Pollyanna, creating continual conflict by the differences.

Time to dust off that WIP, jump deep into the POV character's head, and try to see the world through his eyes... and see if we can't generate a little conflict because of the differences.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Writing Help...from Dr. Phil?

I'd gone to bed last night thinking about a character I'm developing for a new WIP. So far, I knew a few details of Ami's life, her career, her appearance, and her turbulent marital status. But her personality was just not coming to life. At three in the morning, during a period of wakefulness, I suddenly realized that she was a huge Dr. Phil fan, and her perception of life and relationships was filtered through his television teaching.

And I hardly ever disobey these middle-of-the-night revelations when my fictional characters come to life and speak to me through my semi-consciousness.

Except when it gets weird. And this was not.

So this morning I hit the internet to find when Dr. Phil was on in my area, and found his web site. I'd picked up a few choice multi-syllable phrases for my character to bring up at key periods, but while looking over Dr. Phil's advice for finding 'your authentic self,' I came to think that maybe some of this material might also be good for discovering the 'authentic self' of my fictional characters. Just ask the same questions and, instead of plumbing the depths of my own soul, make up answers instead.

For example:
Decide which of your key external events has turned out to be the most toxic experience of your life. This will be either one of your 10 defining moments, seven critical choices or five pivotal people. Then write a short description of the target event. When you're done, read it over to make sure you are being honest in your account. from

So what is Ami's most toxic moment--the one event that affected her most negatively? I have a feeling it's actually an event that occurred just before the novel begins, the souring of her marriage.

But what are her defining moments, the things that made Ami who she is?

What critical, life-changing decisions has she made through the years?

And what people have changed her life he most?

What great things to think about to get a handle on who our main characters really are! While not all of these things will make it into the novel as back story, they certainly will help forge her personality.

So I have my homework for the day. Hmmm...

Friday, April 2, 2010


Yes, the Easter egg mania seems to have gotten to me too, at least from the title. (My apologies for that.)

I was thinking a little about reader expectations as I watched Bones last night. Dr. Sweets rode on the subway next to a young man who received a text message telling him he'd just won his long battle with cancer. He bubbled over, exciting Dr. Sweets, a stranger to him, with the good news. The young man fantasized of all he planned to do with his new-found life. He was overjoyed. Dr. Sweets was overjoyed. People at home watching were overjoyed. I turned to my husband. "He will be dead within minutes." And sure enough.

All his expectations were dashed, along with his cranium. Sad, huh? Why would they do that to the viewer?

The writers certainly could have composed the scene so we knew less about the man, thus shielding us a little from the pain of his death. The plot would have moved on just as well. But...

Something special happens when you take a character, get the reader (or viewer) rooting for him, and then dash his hopes into smithereens. You make the reader care more deeply about what happens. You pull him in. Now this doesn't always involve killing someone--except maybe in Bones.

But say you have a bride, a young woman deeply in love, fulfilling her fondest wish as she walks down the aisle. Leave her at the altar.

Or shipwreck survivors waiting on a deserted island. On the horizon is a boat. Sink it.

That woman on an important date? Find new ways to embarrass her.

Or that crop that is in the fields. The one that will pay for Laura'a new shoes and get the family out of debt. Add a swarm of locusts.

Build expectations. Dash them. Rinse. Repeat.

Figure out the best thing that could happen to the character. Hang it just out of reach. Determine the worst thing that could happen to a character at any given moment. Make it so.

Yes, I think we need to give the characters moments of happiness in between, allow those moments to let the reader have a breath of fresh air--give them hope that all will be well. Add some humor, some heartwarming moments. But don't let them stay there too long.

Writers tend to like their characters and want good things to happen to them. We want to smooth out their lives and allow them some happiness, as if they were real people. And that would be great, but that's not going to make others care about them. We need to save the happy endings for the end.

What are some of the ways you've been drawn in by seeing a character's expectations dashed?