Thursday, May 6, 2010

Disliking and deep pov

I was recently critiquing an opening for a friend, because she'd said contest judges always noted that they didn't like her heroine. It was a puzzle, because she'd set the heroine up to be admirable-- a social worker who has organized a charity to help poor women get out of abusive situations.

What I realized is... sometimes deep POV in the opening of the story is counterproductive. If the character isn't easy to like, consider easing into forcing the reader to "be her".

In this story, the heroine was snarky. Really snarky. She had snarky mental criticisms about everything, about her boss's choice of footwear and the mayor's speeches, about her best friend's latest boyfriend and her own inability to get a date. Since we were in her head deeply and exclusively, we were sort of surrounded by all these snarky comments and couldn't get away.

So at first I tentatively suggested that the author just tone that down, make her less snarky. "But that's who she is," said the author. "And it's important that she be skeptical and critical because she's the only one who figures out that the congenial old mayor is a killer."

Okay. Well, you know, point of view "depth of penetration" can vary throughout the book, depending on what you need and how much you need the inner reality of the character. This is really important to know: Deep POV is not some life choice you make and can never unmake. It's just a tool to get what you want. And usually when you use deep POV, the purpose is to give the reader the experience of being this character.

Not all characters are good to "be" right off. Sometimes it might be better to ease into the character. You know how some people you don't much like right off, but as you go on you realize they're wonderful people, just gruff or curmudgeonly or sarcastic or whatever is offputting? (Interestingly, this can often make male characters more intriguing and appealing from the inside, but can make a woman character really hard to like. Sexism? Or is that just women readers' response? Maybe men don't respond so negatively to sarcastic women characters? Or maybe I'm the only one who responds that way?)

Well, sometimes it's better to present the character as she is on the outside, and hint at her inner depths, and then, when the reader already has reason to like her (because the outside draws him in), unleash the Seinfeld-within.

Just a thought. But you know, deep POV is not the only approach to introducing characters to readers. I bet you feel like you know Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy pretty well, and they were presented almost entirely from omniscient viewpoint. Sidney Carton? ("It's a far, far better thing I do...") Omniscient. All those books in the 19th century: If they weren't first-person, they were probably mostly in omniscient, and they were pretty good, right? You never put down Dickens and thought, "Boy, I don't understand that Scrooge fellow one bit. Wish I could be deeper into his mind."

You can get to know characters by their actions too. In fact, "By their fruits, ye shall know them," should be emblazoned on the computer screen of popular fiction writers. What the characters think and feel might be important. What they DO, however, is essential.

So if you feel like your character isn't immediately likable, but will be eventually, try easing in on the point of view. Start in single POV, but a little more distant. (I think that might also help us concentrate on an active opening, btw, rather than a few pages of snarky introspection. What's happening, not what's being thought?) Show the character through his/her actions and reactions, and just slide in thought and feeling as needed.

You're in charge here. Never forget that. You are not controlled by your POV choice!



Adrian said...

Yikes, that's exactly how my WIP opens, with a female protagonist mentally ridiculing another character who will be her nemesis throughout. My novel is first-person, so simply stepping back will be harder. And without the snark, it's hard to convey the opening conflict.

Riley Murphy said...

Hmm...I tend to think of deep POV as contemplative moments and thinking in those terms, I’d probably hold off writing about my heroine contemplating things that mean nothing to the reader - right off the bat. Heck, there might be something important there - that the reader was supposed to grasp (relevant to the story) - but they didn’t, because they were too distracted trying to find something to connect with and draw them into the story.


gj said...

Perhaps a slightly different issue, but ever since Chick Lit hit the stage, and snark became sort of fashionable, I've been seeing a lot of protagonist snark that doesn't hit the right notes. It crosses the line between being wittily observant to being unnecessarily mean.

It's not the POV, but the lack of justification for the snark. It makes me think of something Jenny Crusie once wrote (or said in a lecture? not sure) about the way that comedy -- especially women's comedy -- depends on the context, and that a snarky comment can be funny in some contexts and not in others. I think the example was a woman denigrating a man who flashed her, and the woman has the exact same put-down in two different situations. In the first example, the flashing was inadvertent, the result of a wardrobe malfunction. So, for the woman to belittle the man wasn't amusing at all, but left the audience/reader feeling uncomfortable. OTOH, in the example where the man flashed her intentionally and was using the flashing to intimidate her, then she could snark away, and the put-down was amusing. (There was a series of tv commercials that violated this principal, too, although I can't recall what the product was -- random snark lobbed at an innocent victim. The ads didn't last long.)

So, beyond the pov issue, consider too whether the snark is deserved. If it's not deserved, then snark, no matter how witty, feels mean-spirited and judgmental rather than smart and strong.

Julie Harrington said...

I like a good sense of snark. I *love* sarcasm and dry wit and I adore books with bite. Carl Hiaasen is a great example of it and how to do it well. But what I don't like -- and for some reason some writers think this is amusing or "clever" -- is when you have a heroine whose snark is geared toward putting other people down.

There's snark and then there's insulting. If a heroine comes across snarky shallow or snarky rude or so snarky petty that I want to slap her? There's nothing clever or witty or fun about. Just obnoxiousness. Obnoxiousity? Is that even a word? LOL. If not it should be.

And when it's the female character/heroine I'm supposed to be rooting for who is doing it (toward random people, toward people she's supposed to be friends with, etc), it smacks of high school prima donna BSism where you're left to wonder just how much of a "friend" she is, for how long, and is your boyfriend safe with her? How long before this "snarky heroine" sidles up to your boyfriend and tells him for his own good about the strange car parked in front of your house all night long and the strange man she swears she saw you with through the window?

Backbiters. And that's where the line is for me that so many characters who try to be snarkers cross over into negative, petty, people who will stab you in the back the first chance they get. One face for the public, another in private. And since we're in that character's head in the POV the very nice, charity-driven, oh so giving public face is instantly canceled out by the shallowness of the interior.

I think there's a difference between snark and cynicism or sarcastic observation born of experience. When someone has been put through the legal wringer, when they've done the right thing, been ground into the dirt for it, been exposed to corruption or greed, fought against it... and lost that person comes out of the experience bloodied and battered and bruised and definitely more cynical for it, but at their heart -- which we get to see in Deep POV -- we still like them because despite it all they're an Underdog-Rooter trying to do the right thing and who still believes in Right vs. Wrong. And who doesn't like an underdog?

As a reader I've noticed that one way to help "sell" a snarky/cynical lead character is to introduce us to one hell of a bastard first and have that lead's cynicism/snark bounce off that person with us *knowing* the snark is well deserved and well placed. It helps us build a little faith in the lead character's conclusions and that snark being 100% deserved and accurate.


Martina Boone said...

I must agree with gj in the sense that much of the chick lit I've read has this same personality profile. However, I think everything must be done in moderation. This may be one of your character's most noticable traits, but they need more dimension. Otherwise, this snarky vibe will wear thin quickly.


Jamie D. said...

Yep. I did the same thing (though different personality...but with the same overall effect). Beta readers had a hard time liking my heroine, and once I looked at it that way, they were right.

I'm giving her context now, so even though she'll still have that moment of "attitude", it will be plausible and maybe even commendable, given the circumstances. I just dove in too early.

Sage advice here. :-)

Edittorrent said...

gj, yeah, I know what you mean. There's snark and there's mean, and sometimes it doesn't take much to make the switch. I remember reading a book where the heroine's thing was mentally giving clever but sort of biting nicknames to everyone around her, and that's kind of okay if they're rotten people. But it was everyone-- the postman and the waitress and the boss and the guy in the office next to her.... She didn't discriminate, that's for sure. But I wanted to name her "Ms. Snark" (okay, that's taken :) and stop reading. It just felt oddly ... assaultive. I don't know. I identify with the nicknamees, I guess!
But anyway,yes, sometimes it just strikes the wrong note, and I wonder if we can tell.

Anonymous said...

Well i don't read chick lit, so can't possibly comment!

The stories I read don't have typically have the POV of a woman, its mostly manly men doing man-type things, like winning wars, kicking arse and chewing bubble gum or generally beating off the bad guy.

But SNARK would not go down well with me. I have no time for that kind of thing. Not appealing to me at all. If I read about a snarky woman, I hope she gets slapped down then told to make some eggs. Or get killed. Whatever is easier :)

Jami Gold said...

My WIP opens with fairly deep POV on a character the reader isn't supposed to like - because the next scene switches to my MC insulting the first guy. When the MC calls him a dirtbag, the reader understands why. :) I think that works the way I want it to.

Jami G.

Eva Gale said...

I think gj and JT got it rght, when it crosses that line...

Linda Maye Adams said...

I started out my last project in third person--not deep POV, but regular third. I had a really hard time with the viewpoint, though I couldn't pin down why. At the time, a free viewpoint workshop was offered, so I took it.

When I got favorable comments on my strong first, I switched the story's viewpoint to first. That told me exactly what the problem was. The character is humorous, but up close and personal in first and third, that same humor became extremely annoying. The workshop then went into omniscient, and I tried that. I was amazed! The story balanced itself out, and the humor just became humor and veered away from annoying. Distance makes a huge difference!

Edittorrent said...

Thomas, so make the character a victim? :)