Reading Journal: Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

One of the things we are strongly encouraged to do at Seton Hill is keep a reading journal to reflect on the fiction and non-fiction books that we read throughout each term.  While I could certainly do this in a word document and send it directly to my mentor for review, I thought it would be more fun to do my journal entries on posts to my blog. I promise to try and be consistent and regular, without the additional prodding on your part!

Book: Characters & Viewpoint
Author: Orson Scott Card
Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing/Craft

Why did I choose this book??
It has been recently brought to my attention that though I may love some of my characters to death not everyone who picks up a copy of my manuscript or current WIP feels the same way. I'm not sure why this should come as a surprise to me. Everyone's tastes are different, so of course they are going to have different reactions to my characters, but my goal is not to alienate or piss of my reader because they do not like or understand my characters.  That said, I've been on a mission to learn as much as possible about character development and creating sympathetic characters so that I can figure out what I have done wrong, or at least polish up the prose so that readers can come to know and love the characters they way that I do.

Initial Reactions to the Book??
Despite the title and premise of the book I found it to be unhelpful for me as a writer given where I am in the writing process. The book is divided into three parts: inventing characters, constructing characters, and performing characters and a large majority of the time is spent on how to develop strong characters at the start of your writing. Several questions and thoughts are presented, about where characters come from, how to get great ideas for stories, how to discover traits and idiosyncrasies. The information overall is useful, but given what I was looking for, which was guidance on ways to better show your character on the page, this did not meet my needs.  That said there were several interesting notes that did stand out to me and made me question my own process for developing characters and thinking more deliberately about the time on the page those characters get. I'm going to highlight some of those thoughts below, and focus on initial character development today and POV in the next post.

Core Thoughts on Character.
Card starts the book at the very beginning asking the reader to reflect on what a character is and does a good illustrating that "character is what he does". We make assumptions about all characters based on what they do and what we see them do. It is a very surface level observation and most often wrong as a result, but it is the starting point for a reader.  What is interesting about this point is that if you don't go deeper and offer other ways of showing the reader who the character is, they will have no resort but to rely upon these baseline judgments. 

Why are these judgments often wrong? Because they do not offer motive or take into consideration their past experiences or their reputation. Audiences have a different reaction to a character who kills for pleasure vs. greed vs. revenge vs. self-defense.  If they only see the act of murder by itself they will have a different opinion of that character than if they have the additional context around the situation, the circumstances and the motives/intentions.  Their past experiences also play a huge role in how we view someone, do we see them as a victim, or the underdog, or are they a manipulator? What is it that made them turn to a life of crime or greed? 

For my Love Sex Magick novel, this  was a big issue that I had with my main character Chai. She can come off as superficial and insensitive to those around her. She is afraid of the magickal authority in the book but the reader doesn't know exactly what it is that is motivating that fear. The current justification on its own is too weak to feel realistic and credible, where as once I explained her family history, her connection to a known felon, and her sting with an underworld magickal gang, suddenly her actions and paranoia begin to feel more real. I used the same technique of revealing more of her backstory up front so that the reader understands the connection between her and the secondary character Yasmine and why she treats her differently from everyone else in the book.

For my current WIP Salem's Triad, I have three main characters and am switching POV between each of them. Which mean each character has to clearly establish themselves on the page and they have to be different from each other. The pacing of the book is much faster, and I have realized that I am going to have to work hard to ensure that in the first act the reader is invested in each character and has enough context to understand and by sympathetic towards them. 

Changing Behaviors with Changing Networks
Another thing Card mentions is that people change when they are in the company of different individuals. We may present ourselves one way at work, another way with our friends and yet another way with our families. A great way to show a different side of a character is to put them in a scene where they have to interact with a different type of person. For my Mystery Classics class I just finished reading "Cop Hater" by Ed McBain

Questions I needed to Ask Myself:
After reading this book there were a couple of questions that I want to continue to reflect on as I make edits to my WIP. 

  1. Do I have the right scenes to allow my character to show who they are?
  2. Did I give readers enough backstory to understand where my character has been and why she may behave a certain way?
  3. Are there different types of people in their network that allow you to see all sides of this character? In some cases, since this is a trilogy, those relationships are developed and played out over a longer character/plot arc.
  4. Consider the characters we hate. What do they do that makes us dislike them? Typically they deliberately cause someone else to suffer (physically or emotionally) that is usually not deserving of that suffering, they lie or betray people close to them.  Are my bad characters bad enough? Are my good characters doing things that on the surface look bad?
I'm going to use this as I think about my edits to my current WIP and I will include another brief post on the last third of the book that is devoted to POVs.