Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint by
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
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
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
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
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
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
Writer's Digest Books 2005