Showing posts with label focal character. Show all posts
Showing posts with label focal character. Show all posts

Thursday, February 27

Point Of View: Elements

Today I'm going to continue talking about the narrator; specifically, about how flexible a third-person narrator can be.


I've found many people use "viewpoint character" and "focal character" interchangeably. I don't, so I thought it would be a good idea to be explicit about what I mean by the following terms.

Storyteller: The writer.

Narrator: The entity that recounts the story. He/she/it may or may not be a character.

Viewpoint character: The character the narrator tells the story through. 

Focal character: The protagonist, the main character of the story.

First-Person Perspective

In first person the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. 

For example:
"Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket. The polyester pants were primary Crayola green. His short, black hair was slicked back from a thin, triangular face. He had always reminded me of a bit player in a gangster movie. The kind that sells information, runs errands, and is expendable." (Guilty Pleasures, Laurell K. Hamilton)
Here there is no distance between the narrator and the viewpoint character, they are one and the same. There is, however, distance in time. The narrator looks back through memory and recounts events that have already taken place.

Also, you will notice that in Guilty Pleasures Anita Blake is not only the narrator and viewpoint character, she is the focal character as well. That is typical of first person narratives, though there are notable exceptions: 
"I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books [...]." (A Scandal In Bohemia)
Here, John Watson is the narrator and viewpoint character while Sherlock Holmes is the focal character. Having a separation between the viewpoint and focal characters works well when the storyteller wishes to write in the first person and yet keep certain things hidden from the reader. 

Also, by looking at Sherlock Holmes through John Watson's eyes we find it easier to admire his piercing intelligence and pass off his anti-social behavior as an amusing idiosyncrasy.

Third-Person Perspective

One of the fundamental differences between the first and third person perspectives is that, in third person, the narrator and viewpoint character are not one and the same. While the narrator may have access to the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character he/she/it is a separate entity. 

Another difference between the first and third person perspective is that, in third person, the narrator and the viewpoint character aren't as displaced in time. 

Orson Scott Card writes:
"Even though most third-person accounts are told in past tense, they feel quite immediate. There is not necessarily any sense of the narrator remembering the events. They are recounted as they are experienced. There is no distance in time.

"However, with third person there is distance in space. That is, the narrator, though she can dip into one or more minds, is never a person who is actually there. She is always an invisible observer, always at some distance. So first person is distant in time, third person in space. " (Characters And Viewpoint)
As with the first-person perspective, the viewpoint character doesn't have to be the focal character. That said, there is often little reason to separate the two. It's a good idea to make the viewpoint character the one who is the most active--the one who has goals to achieve and obstacles to overcome.

If you, the storyteller, don't wish the reader to learn something the viewpoint character knows, there isn't the same obligation for you to reveal it since the narrator and viewpoint character aren't the same.

Point Of View: The Elements

Now that I've talked a bit about how I'm using words like "focal character" I wan to talk about several elements, or dimensions, or what-cha-m-call-its that go into forming a point of view. These are:

1. Number of heads.

This refers to the number of heads a narrator can peek into, whether at a time or over the course of a story. 

For example, in third person limited a narrator is restricted to peeking into one and only one mind. In third-person omniscient, on the other hand, a narrator can peek into any character's mind.

2. Depth

Depth has to do with the level of penetration into the viewpoint character's mind. 

Subjective versus Objective

If the narrator has access to the thoughts and emotions of the character then the POV is subjective. If the narrator does not have this access then the viewpoint is objective.

Level of Penetration

As I wrote on Monday, depth of penetration has to do with how deeply into the characters current thoughts and emotions the narrator can go. At the deepest level the voice of the narrator melds with the voice of the character. 

Here's an example from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
That last paragraph is in Big Jim's voice. It's the narrator talking--or so it seems to me--from within the consciousness of Big Jim. 

For instance, look at this fragment: "[...] Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." As I discussed on Monday, Stephen King employs an omniscient narrator in Under The Dome. The narrator knows exactly what Junior's illness is and it's not an eating disorder; the narrator would never say this, not like this. 

So what's happened? It seems to me that, here, the narrator has momentarily dipped down so deeply into the thoughts and feelings--the personality--of the character that he/she/it speaks with Big Jim's voice and with all the limitations that implies. 

Usually, though, in third person narratives the narrator doesn't go quite that deep into the consciousness of the character. For example, here is the beautifully written opening paragraphs of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman:
"The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.

"He had begun the evening by enjoying himself: he had enjoyed reading the good-bye cards, and receiving the hugs from several not entirely unattractive young ladies of his acquaintance; [...]."
Here the narrator knows the superficial thoughts and feelings of the character; he/she/it knows about what an observant passerby would.

Yikes! 1,200 words and counting. I'll continue this post on Friday. Then we'll discuss a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) and transparency. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Bench at sunset" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Photo is based upon Thomas Leuthard's photo, untitled, which he licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Friday, November 15

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

How To Evoke Emotion In Readers: The Focal Character

Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.

This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer

What do we want our stories to do?

We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.

Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't. 

What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?

Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?

Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.

So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others. 

Evoking Emotion

As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)

1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.

DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.

On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.

The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)

Instances/events have to be specific.

Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.

Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.

You need a yardstick.

DS writes: 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."

Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it. 

The yardstick needs to be a character.

"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."

Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.

Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.

"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.

Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa. 

As Dwight Swain writes:

"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."

2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.

I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character. 

A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.

Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.

A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."

How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)

You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally

Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.

The three main functions of the focal character:

i. "To provide continuity."

However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.

ii. "To give meaning."

It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential. 

DS writes:

"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." 

For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".

In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes. 

This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.

iii. "To create feeling."

The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."

Here's how it works:

Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.

Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.

3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character

The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.

Viewpoint character:
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."

Focal Character:
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."

The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."

For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."

I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula. 

Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.