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Book Review:

Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Reviewed By Valerie Comer

Copyright 2008 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved


Nancy Kress has earned her spot on my shelf of books on writing techniques. As part of Writer's Digest's Write Great Fiction series, her teaching style is entirely readable and practical.

Kress says: "Without believable and interesting characters, you don't really have fiction at all. You may have names walking through plot, but without the essential animation of character, a historical novel becomes mostly a historical text, a mystery becomes a police report, a science fiction becomes a speculative monograph. Literary fiction simply becomes unread. Character is key."

With that idea on the table right at the beginning, Kress sets out to prove that the whole concept of 'novel' depends on the character. She explains that the plot, setting, and descriptions are dependant on who the characters are, how they act and react, and how they see the world around them.

These characters are in the hands of the writer, who must portray them clearly to the readers. In order to do that, the writer must learn to become three distinct people: writer, character, and reader. Only when these three aspects come together can the story's dramatization come alive.

The writer is vital in choosing the words to portray the story--choosing whether this paragraph will contain dialogue, description, or something else. Becoming the character is important as well--we need to feel what the character feels as deeply as we can, so that it can be portrayed on the page. The part of the writer that is the reader is necessary to see the end effect of the words we have chosen. Have we put into words everything that we needed to? Because once the story leaves our hands, the reader doesn't have the advantage of our understanding and our depth of emotion, only what we have actually recorded on the page.

Of course, Kress understands that we cannot be all three sets of eyes in the same moment. Instead, she points out that the writer continually jumps back and forth while working on the story in order to bring it to life, analyzing it from all three angles.

She says: "By focusing on the character, by making craft choices that build the character, by becoming that character, and then by ensuring that all your choices and emotion actually have been translated to the page--by doing all that, you give readers what they want. They want to see interesting, compelling people living their individual stories. Readers want to care about what happens in the story, and character is how you make them care."

How do you find characters? As writers, we examine ourselves and people we know, putting bits into characters. We find sparks from strangers, and we invent characters from scratch. Kress discusses how important first impressions are of each character, and thus how to introduce them so that the portrayal is accurate.

Who wants cardboard, one-dimensional characters? None of us do. Kress shows us how to build complex and conflicting motivations into our characters--and how to set up the motivations to develop throughout the story.

Emotion is a valuable tool, but how do we show it in our characters? Kress discusses using emotion through dialogue and thoughts as well as more subtly through metaphors and symbolism. She also tackles special cases of emotions--loving, fighting, and dying--and how to effectively showcase them. One chapter is devoted to frustration, which she labels the most useful emotion in fiction.

Now that we have complex characters with intricate motivations and emotions, Kress moves on to viewpoint. She neatly dissects the various point-of-view (POV) styles and provides examples of effective usage of each along with specific pitfalls. Then she gives guidelines for choosing POV characters: the least possible number to still provide the whole story to the reader.

We may have a full cast of characters and a rough idea of plot, but the actual story changes radically depending on which character is the protagonist. If you're writing suspense, for instance, the three main characters might be the victim, the criminal, and the detective. Even when the basic plot remains the same, the themes and tone of the story--perhaps even the genre--will vary by which character we choose as lead.

Often we use more than one character's point of view. Kress shows how to determine which character's eyes each scene should be shown through. She shows the major styles of viewpoint and the reasons the writer might choose any one over another in any given story. She also examines less common POV styles such as epistolary (journal style) and depths of authorial intrusion to explore when it works to the writer's advantage.

In the final chapter, Kress gives advice on how to put it all together and start the actual writing process. She advises that only once we have substantial words down on the page do we allow the fourth required persona to look at our work. She advises us to alternate writer, character, and reader hats during the first draft. Only now should the fourth persona, the critic, be allowed access to the manuscript. She gives a brief list of specific craft issues to aid the focus of the critic. She also discusses the merits of using other people as readers and critics, and how to go about finding those special partners.

To sum up, in Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Nancy Kress provides a full and practical guide on how to write a character-based story, a guide complete with various writing exercises, examples, and easy-to-follow instructions. Take your time and work through this book while planning a new story. It will be well worth your time.

Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

ISBN: 1-58297-3164

Writer's Digest Books 2005