The first week, I wrote (wrote ... stole from Algis Budrys is more like it) a bit on how stories are about characters, in a context, with a conflict. Last week, I suggested that before you get too far along in plotting out the nature of that conflict and how you're going to wrangle with it through 300 or more pages of manuscript, you should first get a solid handle on your characters. So this week you might expect that I'll move on to context or conflict.
Fooled you. Instead I'm stepping into the invisible but all important territory that falls between character and context. I'm going to talk about viewpoint and its close cousin, voice. By the way, I will now proceed to use the two terms in an intermingled way that would not pass 8th grade English. Fortunately, I've already passed the 8th grade (though we called it "intermediate hunting and gathering" back then), and I don't care.
Before you run away mumbling about third person subjective, levels of omniscience, dialect and other painful experiences from your own time in lit classes, don't worry. I'm not going to thumb through all the possible combinations. I'm only going to ask a question: who is telling this story? I know that sounds like a trick question. You're the author, you're telling the story. But viewpoint and voice can serve as your mediator, a proxy to slide between you and the reader. Just as some actors welcome the opportunity to slip on a mask or makeup that helps them disappear into the character, viewpoint is a way that you can choose to present yourself to the reader.
You can step back to Olympian heights and peer down on the ant-like scurryings of your characters from chilly dispassionate distance. You can hover close at hand, wincing at every moment when they turn away from the best option. You can even put on the mask of one of your characters, playing your role in the pretense that you don't know what's happening in the rest of the world where you are god.
Finding the right viewpoint and voice for a book isn't just one of the most important steps in making the book enjoyable for the reader, it's probably the most important step in making the book fun for you, the writer. When I was writing the novel Devil's Tower, I always thought of the story as being told to me by an invisible man who tracked along close behind the boot prints of my main character, Jake Bird. This fellow was older than Jake, more worldly. Sardonic, but not unkind. And in my ear he sounded just like Sam Elliot. Who wouldn't want to listen to that voice, especially when you have to wrangle nearly 1,500 pages of manuscript in a novel and two sequels? That viewpoint—inexorably attached to Jake, but free enough to make judgments about the situation that might not pop into Jake's 18-year-old skull—shaped the book, drove the story, and made it possible for me to sit at the keyboard for 40+ page jags while feeling as if I was just transcribing.
The right voice and viewpoint is the difference between typing THE END and saying "thank god," and getting there with an "aww, that's all?" The right viewpoint turns your book into a collaboration between you and your characters. The wrong viewpoint turns it into a daily fight. So for your own sake, don't just dive into third person subjective because it's the most common viewpoint on the shelves, and don't think you have to write first person just because the last bestseller you picked up did it that way. Think about who you're going to be working with for the next few months. Think about the mask you want to wear. Think about how f'ing hard this is going to be if the story you want to tell, and the mouth you've designed to tell it, are always at cross purposes.
Granted, if you're writing certain kinds of books, the viewpoint is almost writ in stone. For example, cozy mysteries (and to a lesser extent, hard-boiled detective novels) tend to be first person. They are told from the viewpoint of the detective character, or that character's Watson. There's a good reason for this. It works. A cozy almost always works against a frame of personal background, unlikely involvement in a crime, and quirks, quirks, quirks. This kind of story is just flat out easier to relay in first person. The voice of a cozy is the voice of it's lead character, so hopefully you and that character are simpatico. Oh, and if you happen to be a schlubby old guy writing from the POV of a 20-something woman, prepare to get some funny looks when you walk into the bookstore for a reading. (Side note: when naming your cozy mystery series, including some repeating gimmick in the book titles is no guarantee of repeat business. I only got three states into my "state name + monster" series before the publisher pulled the plug).
Okay, example time. Here, read this.
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.If you've been to the movies in the last couple of years, you probably recognize these words. It's the opening of Charles Portis' novel, True Grit. It also happens to be one of the best American novels ever written, a thing of near perfection.
Here is what happened. We had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas River not far from Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. Tom Chaney was a tenant but working for hire and not on shares. He turned up one day hungry and riding a gray horse that had a filthy blanket on his back and a rope halter instead of a bridle. Papa took pity on the fellow and gave him a job and a place to live. It was a cotton house made over into a little cabin. It had a good roof.
What makes it work so well is the absolutely thundering first person voice of Mattie Ross. This book is entirely inside the head of Mattie. So entirely that you don't even learn Mattie's name for a chapter and get a real description of her not at all. Mattie tells you what Mattie wants to tell you, and it's a helluva story. Mattie is opinionated, tough, judgmental, double-tough, and unforgiving. She's rarely sentimental, quick to seize on any fault, and about the hardest hard ass who ever graced the page of a novel in English. Oh, and as the book goes on it becomes increasingly clear that Mattie's judgments aren't just harsh, they're also often wrong. She is unreliable as a narrator, far more interested in giving her opinion than the facts. And three cheers for that.
This isn't a story being told by a teenage girl, it's a story being relayed by a hardened, one-armed, spinster retelling her best "when I was a child, it was 10 miles to school, and it was uphill both ways" story. I love Mattie Ross. Love her. If you should encounter a character whose voice so completely swallows your novel as Mattie does this one, marry her. Quick.
Now, without leaving the west, here's something completely different.
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.Tell me that wasn't fun. It's no surprise that this is the opening of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. It's also one of the finest examples I've seen of skating the edge between third person subjective and omniscient viewpoint. It's not any version of "limited omniscient viewpoint" I was ever taught. In fact, within the first chapter the book gives insights plucked straight from the minds of every person at the nearly cattle-free Hat Creek Cattle Company. The camera roves back in time to fill in back stories where needed. It lingers close by main characters for long stretches, then darts off to follow someone new. It does all the things you're usually told not to do, all the things that readers find distracting, things that make books seem cold and distant. But Lonesome Dove is never less than personal, never less than involving. McMurtry manages to drift his eye across half a continent, and never make you feel like you've lost touch with the characters or their emotions. And yet this viewpoint is also unsparing. Unlike Mattie, it reveals the good and bad qualities of friend and foe alike. It's simply a wonder.
"You pigs git," Augustus said, kicking the shoat. "Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake." It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for sun, and to his eye the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.
Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day — and most of the months of the year — the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices — if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices — of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
His stubborn partner, Captain W. F. Call, maintained that there was excellent shade as close as Pickles Gap, only twelve miles away, but Augustus wouldn't allow it. Pickles Gap was if anything a more worthless community than Lonesome Dove. It had only sprung up because a fool from north Georgia named Wesley Pickles had gotten himself and his family lost in the mesquites for about ten days. When he finally found a clearing, he wouldn't leave it, and Pickles Gap came into being, mainly attracting travelers like its founder, which is to say people too weak-willed to be able to negotiate a few hundred miles of mesquite thicket without losing their nerve.
Even if you've never read a western in your life. Even if you think you hate westerns, you need to read these two books just to see what can be done. A sharp-tongued first-person narrator who reveals as much in what she doesn't say as what she does. A unflinching omniscient viewpoint that is nonetheless as warm as the Rio Grande in summer. Two great examples of books that would be something very different, and probably something much less, without that magic combo of viewpoint and voice.
So go find yours.
My update for the week:
Not so good, I'm afraid. I've barely limped through a chapter—a pace that won't see me complete this book on time. So I'll be at the keyboard tomorrow for extra hours, trying to catch up.
I mentioned last week that my book has three primary characters. In the opening set of chapters we hang in third person subjective, just over the shoulder of each of these three, watching as they get recruited into the unlikely enterprise that makes up the bulk of the novel.
For Air Force Captain Scott Bearing, that recruitment comes at King Khaled Air Base in Saudi Arabia, on the brink of the Persian Gulf War. Scott has just finished the exhausting work of jockeying an F-117 into position for the coming conflict. We first meet him horsing the plane onto a blacked out runway. Afterward, he knows he should go to sleep, but he's tangled in a mixture of bone weary exhaustion and nerves about the upcoming conflict. Restless, he staggers out to the most secluded section of the massive "air city."
It was just possible to make out the a salmon-tinted glow on the horizon in the direction of Hafar Al-Batin City, but it wasn't enough to dim the vertebral sprawl of the Milky Way overhead. For just a moment, Scott saw a string of stars flicker as another Nighthawk slid in toward the base. The air was heavy with the harsh odor of jet fuel and the lingering smell of warm blacktop, the familiar smells of any air base anywhere on the planet. But when a sand-laden breeze cut in off the desert to the north, Scott could also detect the scent of unfamiliar spices and the redolent smoke of a dung fire.And that probably tells us everything we need to know about Scott Bearing. A couple of paragraphs after this, Scott is going to meet an unfamiliar man in a suit and start a journey that will take him first back to America, then a lot farther than Saudi Arabia.
Somewhere out there, not so far away, there were still men who crossed this desert on camels. Men for whom the national borders Scott was there to defend were less than a line in the sand. He found that thought strangely encouraging.
Meanwhile, Kat Essex is unlocking the doors to a house she owns south of the Beisenweg in a suburb of Amsterdam. She knows she shouldn't be doing this--selling pot in Amsterdam circa 1992 is legal, growing it is a lot more of a gray area. Kat would definitely not be showing off like this... if the guy was not so cute.
"Brace yoursef," she said. Then she put her palm against the warm metal door and pushed it open.Doesn't sound all that pleasant, does it? But Kat really is proud of the place, and that's why the cute guy is actually there to semi-shanghai her for a new job.
The first thing that escaped from the house was light. There was a filmy tapestry hanging behind the inner door, but it did little to diminish the astonishing glare that came from the room beyond. It wasn't just bright compared to the hallway; it was bright compared to the autumn sun outside. It was so bright that it took Kat's eyes several seconds to adjust well enough to see the rank upon rank of fixtures that were producing the blaze.
By then the room had delivered a second blow--one composed from equal measures of oppressive heat, cloying humidity, and nauseating odor. The smell was deeply organic. A connoisseur of noxious fumes might have noted notes of manure, overtones of rotting moss, and a lacing of something sharp and spicy. Mostly, it was the smell of almost ten thousand marijuana plants growing in a very small space.
These two are solidly hooked into the story by the end of chapter three. It's the third member of my crew that's still giving me trouble. The guy whose hobby involves pumping the blood out of dogs and replacing it with cold salt water. Somehow, I'm having a problem finding a hook that lets me get this guy on stage in the right way.
But for now I'm plunging on. Scott Bearing has just landed in Albuquerque and picked up a rental car that will take him to a religious compound on the outskirts of Durango, Colorado. That's where our trio will start to learn what's really going on. And hey, they'll finally meet each other after nearly 100 pages of text. About damn time.
Funny, I didn't realize when I was writing those chapters that the book is literally stinky. Hmmm.