In February I’m teaching a new deep point of view class through OIRW. The title of the class is Clarifying Your Writing Through Deep Point of View. Though we’ll cover the basics of the four parts of character experience (physical experience, mental experience, emotional experience, and spiritual experience) during this class, we’ll quickly dig deeper than we’ve gone in other deep point of view classes to uncover how deep point of view works to develop the character at the stage of the character development work that authors do and then how to use deep point of view to go deeper and transmit the nuances of character through the specific experiences that the character has.
The first thing to understand is that it is the deep experiences that characters have that make characters unique individuals with thoughts, feelings, struggles, triumphs, hopes, dreams, goals, and regrets like those of us on the real plane have.
Anyone can create a blond haired, blue eyed, long legged heroine with a penchant for fine things…or alternatively a dowdy, mousey haired, loner who prefers collecting yarn and cats to fine wine.
It’s not the details that we typically put on character study sheets – like body size and style, eye color, hair style, hair color, favorite color, mode of dress, favorite foods, mode of transportation, favorite hobbies, or even careers, goals, and regrets that create characters. We can write these things on character sheets till the cows come home, but simply writing them on a character sheet in our story binder will not make these elements of character spring to life or transmit themselves to the reader in a way that makes the character seem like a real, breathing person that the reader is getting to know throughout the reading experience.
Instead, we start with these things that we write on our character study sheets. We know that the character is short, dowdy, that she has mousey brown hair, wears thick glasses, spends her time collecting yarns and cats in her Victorian mansion in a quiet street in a small town. We might know that she has a goal of making winter scarves for all the people at the homeless shelter and that she feels guilty for a hit and run accident that she was involved in as a teenager.
What we won’t know until we start working with this character, word by word, action by action, sentence by sentence, scene by scene is all the ways that her guilt over the hit and run accident has affected her over the years. Those things will come to us as we work with the character, through the lens of deep point of view, examining not only what she does, but why she does it. We will find not only that the character acts in ways that are unique to her but that the ways she acts and reacts reflect how she feels about herself, how she feels about the hit and run accident, what she perceives as her worth and value to society, what she perceives as the most she can become given who she has become. As these things are reflected to us through the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings, then we can in turn incorporate them into the fabric of the novel. Our characterization will become deeper. The character’s actions which form the basis of the plot will become better motivated. The character and the story as a whole will feel more real to the reader. The reader will vest more into the story and will feel more and more a part of the story and will care more and more about the outcome. This is what we all want when we write a story.
Getting there is really about digging deep enough. It’s about the questions you ask yourself as you begin to write. It’s about asking…what would this character who is dowdy, mousey, who is still affected and hiding away years later do when she sees the hero who is an undercover cop masquerading as a homeless man bleeding in an alley. Given her background she may see helping him as her chance to redeem herself in a moral sense for the harm she caused as a teenager. Her desire for moral redemption might be stronger or might completely obliterate any fear she might have about helping him into her house and nursing his injuries.
The thing is that you show her fear being completely obliterated by her desire for moral absolution by showing her thoughts and her feelings moment by moment, tiny action by tiny action, as she decides how best to help him and as she carries through. The desire for moral absolution can be both a thought and a feeling or could be a fantasy about what moral absolution would feel like…what she’d do if she finally had it. So you need to pick this apart…figure out whether it is a thought, a feeling, a fantasy or some of each that cause her to go to the bleeding man and help him stagger to her house…in spite of the fact he smells like three-day old booze and like he hasn’t bathed in weeks.
The things that convey her background and how it impacts her are in the minute thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions that are strung together to form the opening scene and then the opening chapter.
What she does is part of her experience…but why she does it…what she thinks…what she feels…what she remembers…is important. These things form the motivation which makes what she does either believable or not believable…either in line with who she is or not quite in line with who she is.
The unique aspects of this character don’t come from the things we wrote on the character sheet about what she looks like, what she fears, what she’s ashamed of, what she wants, what she dreams of. The unique essence of the character comes through in the ways that the things we wrote about on the character sheet impact her moment to moment actions and reactions. Allowing her unique essence to come through on the pages of the novel requires showing these impacts as they happen. What thoughts does she have? What feelings? What fantasies? What memories? How do these things motivate her action?
The things we wrote in the book planning binder defines a character who has certain parameters. But when you put her in motion…make her take actions, and then put other people in the scene and make her react to the actions that they take you begin to learn more about her. She’s still mousey haired. She still prefers cats to people. She still doesn’t feel worthy of participating in society, of having friends. But now you move one step deeper. How does someone who prefers cats to people, who doesn’t feel worthy of participating in society, of having friends, react when she is face to face with someone who needs her help? What motivates that action? What thought? What feeling? What belief? Showing this on the page, by showing her specific mental or emotional experience allows the full essence of who she is at the deepest level to come through and be fully visible and fully understandable to the reader.
When we’re talking about using deep point of view to clarify your writing we’re really talking about digging down deep and thinking about the character, all the things that make the character unique, and then figuring out how someone with all these unique things about them would act…and why. What thoughts, feelings, spiritual beliefs, goals, wants, dreams, and desires would motivate their actions.
Of course, we can be overwhelmed by a character who has a lot of past experiences. Then we have to filter the details of the character’s past experience so that we’re not showing everything that ever happened to the character…but are showing just those things that impact the character’s behavior now…in this story. Which pieces of the past…which memories, which thoughts, which feelings are impacting behavior now?
It requires balancing the parts of experience…usually bringing in more thoughts and feelings than a lot of authors are comfortable bringing in because they worry that bringing them in will slow the pace. Too many thoughts and feelings will slow the pace if you bring them in by the paragraph. If you stop the action surrounding them. But if you weave them in carefully…half a sentence which motivates an action here…a full sentence that motivates dialogue there…a couple of sentences that show her hope here you will not slow the pace. In fact, you’ll make what is happening all the more important and all the more memorable because it will seem to the reader like it is the thing that would of course happen…even if it does surprise them. They will see how this character, in this setting, would take this action.
Deep point of view is a powerhouse in the author’s arsenal. It allows them to get readers to understand, forgive, and empathize with a character’s bad behavior.
It allows an author to create odd characters who behave strangely but who still make sense to readers. Authors who create characters who suffer from disabilities like Asperger’s or OCD use deep point of view to make these characters likeable even though they are socially awkward or are obsessed with certain things. They do this by creating the character’s experience…allowing the reader to experience it too…by weaving the disability into how the character sees the world and reacts to the world.
Above all, getting the most out of deep point of view involves digging below the surface. It involves thinking about all the things that you wrote about the character in your novel’s planning binder, and then thinking how would a character who has had all those experiences, who suffers all those hangups, who has all those strengths, who has that set of beliefs behave in this situation. Would they do x, y, or z? Why? What thoughts and feelings would motivate the behavior. The key is going from understanding what they would do and why they would do it to showing the motivation on the written page by weaving the specific motivating thoughts and feelings into the fabric of the scene. This is the hard part.
This is why in the class on Clarifying Writing Through Deep Point Of View we will be spending a lot of time on written excerpts from class participants. Written excerpts allow a lot of examples, good and bad and allow us to work through any weaknesses that are present in examples posted.
Please leave any questions you have on point of view below. I am always happy to answer writing questions here on the blog.