Pointed view

Write about what?

point Oct sun 060Almost everyone knows about first person and third person narratives in writing. Basically as humans we all see from the familiar, limited first person point of view that allows us only to know what goes on in our presence.  Much traditional literature is written in the third person omniscient view point.  Omniscient in this case is not really all-knowing, but refers to multiple limited viewpoints. The author follows various characters as they interact in the story and informs us not only what is going on around them, but what they are thinking and feeling, too.

So what happened to the second person narrative? The one written from the “you” viewpoint? Although we frequently use this construction in informally, it almost sounds insulting in other forms of writing. Imagine reading:

 You walked slowly towards the front of the school, clutching your backpack  in your hand. You scan…

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The character who saw too much

Write about what?

reading2Writing from the first person point of view routinely goes through periods of popularity only to be followed by a flood of amateurish first person novels. Then, writing “gurus” will advice the beginning writer never to write in first person. However, it is really a matter of whether it fits the story you are telling.

First person is the viewpoint that we as humans are stuck with in real life. Sticking strictly with one person, revealing only what they see,  hear and feel actually simplifies the story telling process. This viewpoint works with a strong plot that is driven by character development. Bouncing back and forth between characters tends to increase excitement, but it also increases a the number of plot holes.  It is easy to forget that characters possess different bodies of knowledge. 

Recently I was reading a mystery movie that began in an interesting manner. There were the…

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Writing the right-hand man (or woman)

17oklahoma07 053Most protagonists are not complete loners. Interactions with a sidekick, best buddy or groups of friends typically make up a good portion of the story. Creating the peers of the main character may actually take more thought than creating the main character. Many authors rely on their own experiences to flesh out the major person in the story. However, they have to guess what is inside the head of the companions and must stretch themselves beyond the comfortable realm of “write about what you know.”

However, observation of real life helps when creating an interesting interplay between the main character and friends.  A peek inside of what helps real groups to solve problems may be the key to creating the cohort that complements the unforgettable protagonist. The current emphasis on collaboration  would lead people to assume assembling a large enough group could solve almost any problem. You really don’t believe this do you?

Create a group of more than five people in fiction and readers have difficulty remembering who’s who. This is not much different from real life. In large groups people stop contributing and start a tactic known as social loafing. Research has shown that somewhere from 4 to 6 is the magic number for a truly collaborative group [1]. Any size beyond that and people will follow the loudest voice that supports the status quo [2]. Maintaining status quo not only limits creativity; it also makes a boring plot line.

Unless you are writing the epic novel of your era, too large a number of well-drawn auxiliary characters dilutes the attention that your reader will invest in the struggles and triumphs of the main character. I used to keep lists of characters when reading epic novels, but then I enjoyed studying literature. I am not your typically reader.

In real situations, diverse groups are smarter and better at problem solving [3]. So add someone of the opposite gender as a friend. Put in a best buddy from another city, country, continent or even another world.  Different ethnicity makes different viewpoints more acceptable because, oddly enough, people become more upset when a view that conflicts with theirs is proposed by someone that looks and acts like them, rather than someone who is obviously different.[2]

This kind of attitude occurs in the fictional world also. Consider the difference between a foil and a doppelganger. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is tall, thin, and an impractical idealist, while his sidekick Sancho Panza, is short, fat and a realist. These differences in temperaments and appearance not only play the main character off of his side kick, but provide a range of resources so that they can assist in helping each other get out of trouble.

However, the when the main character has a twin, a person who appears the same physically but is on the other side of the behavioral spectrum, the outcome is virtually bound to be tragic. It doesn’t matter whether the twin is an actual human, as in the Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, a mythical doppelganger, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson, or simply an illusion as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double. One (or sometimes both) of the identical appearing people are almost always doomed. There is an occasional exception. In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer the young captain benefits from saving the life of his criminal look alike.

When it comes to creating the friends of the protagonist, you may not be able to always write what you know, but look at what others have written, both in fiction and real life research.

[1] Useem, Jerry.  “How to Build a Great Team” Fortune  Magazine, June 1, 2006 
[2] “Is Your Team Too Big? Too Small? What’s the Right Number?”Knowledge@Wharton. Jun 14, 2006
[3] Woolley, Anita. and Malone, Thomas. Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women, Harvard Business Review Magazine June, 2011.


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When characters collide

Write about what?

Face_Off copy
Consider the possible basic conflicts in fiction:  man against environment, man against man, man against society, and man against self.  In most plots the conflicts are between people.  Even in Robinson Caruso and Castaway, tales of man surviving in isolation, other people are part of the conflict. The fact that the protagonist  learned to survive  on his own didn’t bring either story to an end. When people arrived on Robinson’s Caruso’s island, they weren’t friendly. The enemy had to be defeated. In Castaway the  biggest conflict occurred when the main character returned to civilization only to realize that the love of his life had married someone else. Contact with people only brought new conflicts.

What causes the conflict between fictional characters is often over simplified. Typically character A and character B want the same thing, but they don’t want to share. This love triangle plot is played over and over…

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What makes a classic, a classic?

Write about what?

AIC copyWhen a person refers to classic art, you automatically assume it is the style derived from classic Greek art. This style is associated with city-states on a small Greek peninsula beginning about 500 B.C. and ending 323 B.C., at the death of Alexander the Great. There are other civilizations with other classic periods, blooms in culture led to the height of artistic expression. Why do we assume that the culture is automatically Greek when it is not identified?  One clue is the ending date, the death of the Alexander the Great. Alexander was actually a Macedonian, but military empires often do not come up with their own “culture.” Rather he adopted one of a conquered region and spread it where ever his armies traveled. Having a similar language and culture makes it much easier to rule a huge empire. When the Romans took over they were too busy building roads and outposts to…

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What makes poetry, poetry?

Write about what?

Barbara_Fritchie_House 2As a young child I assumed poetry must rhyme.  Meter was beyond my comprehension. It was only that constant repetition of ending sounds that mattered. In fifth grade, the teacher encouraged us all to enter a poetry recitation contest.  The selection had to be memorized.  In a conscious attempt to be an over achiever, I choose a poem longer than any other student, a ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier called Barbara Fritchie.

In what seemed to be a monumental task, I spent the next week committing to memory the story of an old Quaker woman confronting Stonewall Jackson as he marched into Frederick, Maryland.  I didn’t care much about the history behind the poem, but I loved chanting the neat rhyming couplets. Each ended on a single syllable accented word so I could really punch out those rhymes.

However, I did have a bit of a quandary what to do…

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When characters will not conform

Write about what?

Jeff 2007The social psychologist Solomon Asch  is famous for his experiments on  how peer pressure affects our perceptions in 1950s.  According to Asch if all those answering before the research participant selected the same incorrect answer approximately 76% of the people would choose that same obviously incorrect answer. [1] So if most people are in a group of ten or twelve people and all of the others say the sky is normally red, the average person will agree and somehow rationalize agreeing with a statement that they know to be false. Perhaps the question is about Mars, and not Earth. The sky is normally red on Mars, isn’t it?  This really has not changed since this 1950s, if anything differs it is the fact that less than 24% of the people tend to disagree when they know that the others are wrong.

But there is something else about conformity that…

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When characters confuse

Write about what?

IMAGE0043a copyWhen Edgar Allen Poe published “Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841 the murder mystery was a relatively new genre. He wrote a few more of these increasingly popular detective stories before leaving behind his own mystery. In 1849 he was was found wandering injured and delirious through the streets of Baltimore. The brilliant writer never regained his wits enough to explain what had happen to him. He died a few days later leaving behind a real unsolved mystery.

Current detectives have more techniques for identifying possible suspect but still lean heavily on the use of a psychological profile. You are probably familiar with a few of the terms they throw around, such as calling card, MO, and motive.  These are not just reserved for suspects in murder mysteries.  Fictional characters take on their own personalities when you remember to consider each of these features. Paying attention to these aspects  doesn’t…

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Writing like you talk

Write about what?

aside2When reading a professional author’s discussion thread, I noted that more than one person assumed the trick to creating a unique writer’s voice was “writing like you talk.”  There is some truth to this if you are a good verbal storyteller. But many good writers are do not excel at public speaking.

Recently I was discussing a book written by a prominent newscaster, mimicking his unique conversational mannerisms. One of the people made an interesting observation. He said, “You can really hear him speaking as you read it, and that really slows you down.” Now, I prefer reading to listening for the very reason that I can read about three times faster than I can listen. This led me to consider the complications of writing like you speak.

Most people tend to be more dramatic and less accurate when speaking. This allows them to be heard over competing voices. Frequent repetition…

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Delusion and Imagery

Write about what?

NY toll road (1) _a copyImagery is one of the harder to pinpoint concepts in poetry. What exactly is the difference between describing something in poetry and creating imagery?  This concept is not always easy to explain.  So I looked at what some experts in the fields of communication and language said about imagery.

Marshall McLuhan, a modern philosopher well known for his communication and media theories, was particularly in the application of these theories. He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertisement appeals to people. He stepped into the realm of politics to comment:

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.[1]

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement looked at McLuhan’s area of expertise, how the public perceives advertisements. According…

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