Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Character and the Reader-- expanding the response

Deep POV is compelling and lets the reader experience what the POV character experiences. But that doesn't mean that you should have the character experience be the limit of the reader experience... or contort the character to make him/her have the experience you want the reader to have.

Okay, that's pretty opaque. What I mean is... the reader can "be" simultaneously the character and... also still the reader. That doubling of identity, in fact, is a great part of the pleasure of reading fiction. That also means that if you want to create an experience for the reader, it doesn't have to be the same experience for the character.

The character should be in character! For example, if Joe is furious to discover his house has been invaded by a couple kids, he isn't going to stop being furious in order to --for a moment-- feel so sad about the kid who slams the refrigerator door and backs off. Joe just has to narrate (if we're in his POV and not in omniscient POV) seeing that kid. But this is Joe. He notices the kid by the refrigerator and yells, "Stay away from my food, you little shit!" Joe doesn't have to realize the kid is hungry for the reader to figure that out and feel pity. All Joe has to do is notice the kid, maybe relate/narrate that the kid is skinny (though he might put it as the little vandal is skinny), and that the kid was just in the refrigerator. The reader can draw her own conclusions, and feel her own feelings (and also Joe's).

This is, I think, especially important in romance, where the reader should feel a romantic/sexual attraction (to both hero and heroine, kind of bi, huh? :) from the start. But that can and should happen without the character leading. The character should feel whatever the character should feel at that moment in the plot, given the circumstances, but the writer-- YOU!-- should set up the scene so that the opportunity is there for the reader to feel eroticism or excitement or whatever. Too often writers think that the character has to feel or experience this so that the reader can, but in fact, the character and the reader are different people with different agendas, and will have different responses to the same event.

So of course you want the reader to be intrigued and attracted to the hero in Chapter 1, when he calls the heroine into his office and fires her. But you don't do that by making the heroine stop thinking about how unjust this is and how she's getting blamed for someone else's mistake and how is she going to pay for her kid's asthma treatment without insurance to think that the hero's legs are so sexy and tight under those fine linen slacks.

She can narrate the action you've set up. What action? Well, if you want the legs to show, he stands up to usher her to the door. She can notice/narrate his tautly muscled legs under the slacks, but what is she going to THINK? Not "My, my, what a fine pair of legs, yum," but "that pair of pants could probably pay for a year's medicine for my kid!"

The reader, however, can think that my, my, that's a fine set of legs, yes, even while participating in the heroine's righteous anger. Fiction readers don't need to be led, only guided, and that by the writer, not the character. Let the character react according to who she is at that moment and what she is experiencing in the plot. Just present the scene so that the reader can experience (additionally) that other experience.

Hitchcock knew this, knew the essence of suspense was to let the viewer know more than the characters. The viewer knows there's a bomb under the poker table... there'll be suspense. (See my article about this: Suspense Is More Than Surprise.) If the characters knew about the bomb, they'd jump up and run out of the house, wouldn't they? End of suspense. So let the characters go on playing poker, experiencing just poker fun time, and let the reader have reason to feel suspense.

The reader can be the character, yes, especially in deep POV. But don't think that the reader will ever be nothing but the character. The reader has a very different agenda-- to be entertained, to be thrilled, to fall in love. Don't restrict the reader to being just the character... or the character to being what the reader wants to be.



Jami Gold said...

Great post. :)

I think the flip side of this is when the character knows more about the situation than the reader. But I suspect the way to catch the reader up is similar in either case - at least if you're going for subtext and don't just want to state it outright, like for a character weakness.

For example, if a character has a phobia (which the reader likely won't share), I have to provide enough information to the reader so they can feel and share the character's dread without ever coming out and having the character think, "Gee, I'm afraid of water" (as the character would never think about it so baldly). I think showing the character's reactions and/or going into deep POV can provide that information to the reader in a way that allows them to connect the dots and share the character's dread even though they, personally, don't have the same phobia.

Jessica Silva said...

Oh, this is really interesting. I've been playing with the idea of showing what the character is going through by action for awhile, instead of blatantly telling the readers what the character's going through (standard show not tell procedure). I hadn't thought much about the reader's reaction to how the character is feeling other than 'they'll understand.' This is definitely another thing to have on mind while writing and editing :) Thanks for another insightful post!