Point of Contact, Point of View
By David B. Coe
I’m excited to be returning to Myrtle Beach for my fourth stint as a faculty member at the SCWW Annual Conference. I’ve enjoyed my previous experiences with the talented, welcoming people of the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, and I have no doubt that this year’s conference will be great fun.
On Friday morning at the conference, I will be leading a breakout session on one of my favorite writing topics: Point of View and Character Development.
In general, I’m leery of any instructor of writing who claims that one aspect of writing is more important than others, or who claims that you HAVE to do certain things or include certain elements in a story. Writing is a highly personal art form. Each of us has an approach to narrative elements like character, setting, dialog, plotting, pacing, etc. that works best for us. Trying to make our creative process fit someone else’s artistic vision is a bit like forcing someone else to wear our shoes. Sure, it might fit a few other people, but for most it’s going to be uncomfortable at best, and crippling at worst.
That said, I believe point of view is the single most important element of story telling. Quite a statement, I know. But bear with me.
When we think of the three crucial pillars of creating a good story, we usually settle on character, setting, and plot. Point of view is the nexus of those three, the place where these all-important story telling constituents meet. Because point of view is, more often than not, the means by which our protagonist shares with our audience all that is happening around her. Through point of view our readers experience emotion, sensation, action. Point of view tells them not only what is happening, but also what it all means and how they ought to be reacting to the words on the page.
When we watch movies (most movies, at least) we see what the camera sees; it is an independent roving eye that captures everything from the nuances of facial expression to the explosions of a fiery climax. In a book or story, however, point of view is the lens. And because, when done properly, it is tied to a specific character or set of characters, it lets us into the intellects and emotions of those characters with far more intimacy than any camera can achieve.
And yet, point of view is even more than all this: it is also a powerful problem-solving tool for writers struggling with a manuscript or trying to work out how best to convey vital information. Point of view allows us to change the very nature of vexing questions like, “How much backstory should I give my readers early in my book?” Or “What details about my setting should I include in my descriptions and which ones should I skip?” Or “How do I make my action scenes (or love scenes, or any other scene for that matter) come alive?”
How much backstory? As much as your point of view character would realistically ponder under the circumstances. If your protagonist is in the middle of a fight or an argument or a date or a business meeting, she might not take much time to think about her childhood and her relationship with Nana and Pop-Pop. If, on the other hand, she’s on a train ride home, staring out a window, tracking the progress of a distant lightning storm, that might be precisely the time to delve into a bit more of her background.
What details of the setting are worth mentioning? Those which your point of view character is likely to notice in that place and time. Some things our eyes skip over; others we focus on with great attention. Often it depends on our mindset, our emotional state, and what we’re doing. If your hero is the middle of a firefight, he’s probably not going to take the time to notice the lovely marigolds in the garden. On the other hand, he might pay close attention to the contour of the roof or the placement of windows.
What makes action scenes (and action can have all sorts of meanings here . . .) pop? The perspective of a key character. These scenes are about more than explaining logistics and kinetics; they’re about love and fear, anger and passion, adrenaline and arousal. The action comes to life when we make it about the things our characters are feeling and thinking.
Put another way, point of view brings context to everything we write. It makes it personal, it makes it relevant, it makes it matter. It transforms those questions I mentioned above from dry discussions of narrative mechanics to something far simpler and yet far more important: “How would the hero of my story experience these things?”
The key, of course, is writing our point of view characters in such a way that they become to our readers real people, reliable narrators, and even on some level, friends. Yes, we’re trying to develop characters who will win the hearts of our reading audience. But more, we are trying to create guides who will steer our readers through the stories and settings we’ve written. They are our point of contact with those who take the time to enjoy our books and stories. What could possibly be more important?
I look forward to talking about character, narrative, and point of view in far greater depth during the workshop, and I look forward as well to meeting and chatting with as many of you as possible.
David B. Coe, who also writes as D.B. Jackson, is the award-winning author of fifteen novels and the occasional short story. His most recent novels, THIEFTAKER, THIEVES’ QUARRY, and A PLUNDER OF SOULS, written under the D.B. Jackson pen name (http://www.DBJackson-Author.com), are the first volumes of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston that combines elements of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The fourth volume, DEAD MAN’S REACH, will be published in the summer of 2015.
Writing as David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) he has published the LonTobyn Chronicle, a trilogy that received the Crawford Fantasy Award as the best work by a new author in fantasy, as well as the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy. He has also written the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe. His next project, a contemporary urban fantasy called the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, will be published by Baen Books. The first book, SPELL BLIND, will be out in January 2015. David’s books have been translated into a dozen languages.
David received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his Master’s and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. He co-founded and regularly contributes to the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), a site devoted to discussions of the craft and business of writing fantasy. He is co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion.