Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Character Point Of View

A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a library to a group of folks who are working on breaking into the writing biz (and a few folks who just loitered in the back while I spoke). The Q&A part of the talk wandered onto the subject of character points of view.

One of the folks in the audience --a person who had read my first two novels, Ghost Road Blues and Dead Man’s Song—asked how I get inside the heads of the villainous characters. My novels (they’re books 1 and 2 of a trilogy that will wrap with Bad Moon Rising in May ’08) include a number of bad guys. One is a psychotic serial killer and gangster named Karl Ruger, known for savagely murdered a group of senior citizens. Another one, Vic Wingate, is an abusive stepfather who savagely beats his fourteen-year old stepson. Then there is a nutso religious fanatic named Tow-Truck Eddie who believes that the voice in his head is God telling him to murder the local paperboy. And the last is an immortal monster. Each of them is a total creep in his own way, and each of them do some very, very bad things.

I, on the other hand, am not a creep and I don’t do very bad things. So, how do I crawl inside the heads of bad guys? That was the topic of conversation.

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is: that’s what writers do. After all a writer doesn’t have to share lifestyle paths, political views, gender, or any other qualities with their characters. J. K. Rowling isn’t an English schoolboy any more than Stephen King wasn’t a religiously oppressed teenage high school girl.

The more complex answer is based on what a writer deliberately does to improve his craft. Shifting points of view is a great exercise for writers (just as it is for actors, artists, etc.). It forces us to take a different psychological or emotional stance. It helps us see through other eyes.

I have a writing exercise based on point of view (POV) that I use with my writing students. Here’s an example of how it works:

I’ll describe something (since ‘tis the season, let’s pick a Christmas tree). Then I’ll ask my students to describe that tree in 1-3 paragraphs. Generally their descriptions will be based on their own takes on Christmas, and there’s a lot of variety there (a class with Christians, agnostics, Jews, etc. will yield substantially different results).

Then, every few minutes I tell them to start with a fresh sheet of paper and describe the Christmas tree as seen by:

· A burglar breaking into the house on Christmas Eve.
· A broken-hearted old woman sitting alone
· A cop at a crime scene
· A blind man who has just had successful surgery to restore his eyesight
· A serial killer
· A young man arriving at a house to pick up his date
· A Hindu visiting a co-worker’s house for dinner
· And so on...
With each new personality model the Christmas tree becomes a different thing because each of these characters could not possibly have the same reference points. The writer then has to imagine their thoughts/reactions/opinions, either based on pure imagination or on information and/or experiences with persons who might fight (to some degree) the models provided.

If you’re a writer give it a try. Feel free to post your version here in the comments section. It’ll definitely be interesting.

-Jonathan Maberry

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