Category Archives: Character

Balancing Multiple Viewpoints

AvengersOne of the coolest things about a series is also one of the biggest challenges for the author: managing a large cast of characters.

One film that I think managed a large cast of characters well is the original Avengers movie. There are a lot of strong characters, and somehow they all got good screen time and some memorable lines. Part of me wonders how successful the upcoming Infinity War movie will manage the balance, now that the cast of heroes has grown so much.

As authors, the challenge of balancing our cast of characters can be even harder because it takes longer to develop characters in book form than in a movie. Precious words must be dedicated to the effort. Luckily, there are many options available to us.

Depending on the story and choices the author makes, the entire series may be told exclusively from the main POV character. For example, I can’t remember any scenes in Harry Potter not from his perspective.

Other series are told from multiple viewpoints, or even from an omniscient point of view. The popular Rangers Apprentice series has such an omniscient POV, with the focus flowing constantly between characters. Then there’s the Warded Man series from Peter V. Brett, in which each book has a different main POV character.

Each approach has pros and cons, which the author needs to understand to make sure they’re leveraging their story for best effect. Some of the advantages of using multiple POVs include:

  • Deeply exploring different aspects of a central theme from different points of view.
  • Leveraging multiple, different story threads and weaving them together into a more complex plot.
  • Exploring multiple socio-economic aspects of society that would be impossible to do with a single POV.

When done well, stories with multiple POVs enjoy a depth and complexity that is hard to rival. Unfortunately, handling multiple POVs is hard to do. Some of the disadvantages include:

  • For every major POV character, you need to spend time developing their voice, their plot, their character arc far more than other supporting characters. You’ll likely need to add at least 10,000 words to the length of your novel for each major POV character you decide to use.
  • Weaving multiple compelling plotlines is hard to do. If you start your story with a teen-age boy with a snarky, rebellious voice and attitude, your readers will grow attached to him. If you then try to weave that story with a middle-aged, reserved woman trying to protect the status quo, will your readers lose interest or grow confused?
  • Those emotional connections you’re building with your readers are fragile, and the more opportunities you give readers to break away from your story or lose interest, the more of them you’re likely to lose.
  • Can you bring all of the various plotlines to a satisfying conclusion through the final climax? Will readers who feel most connected to each of the POV threads all feel like their favorite character was given enough screen time?

Set in Stone CoverIt can be a daunting challenge but it’s doable, and the payoff can be amazing. I love big, epic stories, and I write multiple POVs. I personally find it’s useful to focus the majority of the story on the main character, and develop alternate POV threads with caution.

In my Petralist YA fantasy series, Connor is definitely the main character, but I decided early on to make three other characters POV characters too. Each of them needs to get enough focus to develop their stories and satisfy the fans who love them the most.

The temptation to keep adding more POV characters can be insidious. As a reader, I hate it when big series I love get bloated with too many side stories that interrupt the flow of the main narrative.

So imagine how embarrassed I was when my editor pointed out in my first draft of my latest novel that I havd over eight POV characters. Oops. Although each POV shift had seemed reasonable during the writing process, the benefits of those additional POV characters did not outweigh the cost to the story. So I went back and re-wrote those chapters, restricting the number of POV characters. It made the story flow better and carry a more powerful emotional weight.

So decide carefully what story you’re going to tell, and make conscious, deliberate decisions about how you’re going to craft your story. Will it be first person, or third? Omniscient narrator, or maybe deep penetration into one or more main POV characters. Study authors who handle similar stories well and analyze what they did.

In the end, you have to decide. If you’ve got solid reasons for your choices, your story will be stronger for it, and your readers will appreciate it.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinRune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Contemporary Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Make me care – the two sides of Bioware storytelling

I am an avid gamer, as many folks are. Over the years I’ve come to focus primarily on strategy games and role playing games, with the draw of both being the story that unfolds out as you play.

This is especially true for the role playing games produced over the years by Bioware. Bioware has a knack for combining winning gaming systems with engrossing stories that has kept me involved in their products for more than twenty years now.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight two of their most famous game series and how the writing for those series helped me become a better writer myself. Ironically the big lesson for me lay in studying why Mass Effect, one of my favorite games of all time, failed to get me emotionally engaged with the main character.

Mass Effect is the story of Command Shepard, a player-created character who embarks on a mission to save the galaxy from the oncoming threat of the deadly Reapers. The story spans three games, each of which can take hundreds of hours to play through completely. Mass Effects world building is peerless in its industry, and to this day it is my favorite science fiction universe created in the past twenty years. From one corner of its galaxy to the other, the mythos and lore of Mass Effect pulled me in deep.

Yet as connected as I was to the world, I could never connect with Commander Shepard himself (or herself, as I did a second playthrough with a female Shepard). It took me a while to work out why this was, but over time I realized it was a lack of personal stakes for the main character of the story.

Shepard walks through the three Mass Effect games almost as a blank space with the whole world being colored around him. Shepard himself has no family, no background beyond a cursory few paragraphs and no real motivations beyond what the player might give him in their own head canon.

The game is more about the rich worlds Shepard visits and the amazing companions he meets along the way. Over the course of the games characters like Garrus, Liara and Mordin grew into friends to me and what happened to them became important. They grow and change, each going on story arcs that are deep and very impactful. Yet Shepard doesn’t change at all. He’s the same guy at the end of game three as he was at the end of game one. I guess this is why, while I love the Mass Effect series, the main character always left me cold. It was like watching a movie where they forgot to put in the main character.

For the most part, this is the modern Bioware model. The main character is a cipher by design to allow for player insertion. The plot and side characters flow around the MC, and while the player gets to impact the world in a very meaningful way, the game isn’t *about* him or her.

Bioware made an exception to this is the second game in the Dragon Age series, and this deviation is one of the main reasons this game is so divisive among the fanbase. Unlike all three Mass Effect games and the other two Dragon Age games, Dragon Age 2 is very much about its main character Hawke.

Right from the first scene we are given Hawke’s family, fleeing in terror from a horde of monsters destroying their home country. We meet his mother and siblings. Early in the story one of the siblings is killed and the rest of the family is reduced to refugees, begging for work in the streets of their new home of Kirkwall.

Through the course of Dragon Age 2, many of the standard Bioware tropes are still on display. Characters with deep and rich backstories come to your side, and Kirkwall gains depth as a setting as the game goes on. The plight of Hawke and his family never leaves center stage though. Hawke’s fortunes change for both better and worse through the story, and at the end of the tale he is a significantly different character than who he was at the beginning.

I connected deeply with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke in a way I never did with Shepard in the Mass Effect games. The story was about him, rather than just how he impacted the story. Hawke had personal stakes – he wasn’t just a hero trying to save people because that’s what heroes do. He had family in the thick of things, and he had to sacrifice and change as a character in order to try and save them.

The difference between Hawke and Shepard is subtle but important to me, and it’s one I’ve tried to remember as I am writing my own stories. I try to give my heroes personal skin in the game, to make them more than just ‘good guys’ who rode into town to right wrongs but to have something on the line that is personal to them and requires them to grow in order to see things set right.

Those Last Three Minutes of Casablanca

Author’s Note: If you haven’t watched Casablanca, do so immediately. This is the movie that changed the way Hollywood made movies and it’s something every writer should understand. There are SPOILERS below, but you need the explanation to really make my points stick.

Casablanca (1942) is a landmark film and one of the top movies of all time. What most people don’t realize is that this movie, specifically the way it was written, changed filmmaking forever. Before Casablanca, the prevailing sentiment in Hollywood was that telling a character-based story required a much longer film. Take Gone With The Wind (1939) with a running time of 3 hours and 58 minutes as a good example of this. Most movies of the time period were shorter, nearly devoid of plot or substance, and played to the audience on a purely esoteric level.

My two favorite movies from this period come from my love of big band music (I was born 50 years too late). Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) feature Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Each of these movies are around the standard ninety minute timeline of most Hollywood features of the 20th century. If you watch them (and I do recommend them – pure popcorn fun), there is virtually no substance. This was a standard practice during this time. Casablanca came along and changed all of that by focusing on the character, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart.

What Casablanca did was very simple. Rick had several things (goals) that he wanted to achieve. Despite being an ex-patriot, Rick wanted to stand up against the Nazis, he also wanted to win back Ilse, his former lover, and he desperately needed friends in the local area to survive (mainly Henri, the police chief). The movie weaves the story of the “letters of transit” which are basically a “pass” from Nazi-occupied North Africa. Rick obtains them and they essentially are the ultimate “get out of jail free” cards. He’s prepared to use them when Ilse suddenly comes back into his life – with her new husband Victor (a famous Resistance leader).

Ultimately, the story puts Rick in the unenviable situation of having the letters of transit and not being able to win Ilse back. He goes to the airport to meet her and her husband and all of the audience’s emotional involvement in the storyline comes to a crescendo in the last three minutes and forty or so seconds. In that time period, Rick gives Ilse and Victor the letters of transit (“We’ll always have Paris”). When the Nazi officer responsible for the area arrives and demands the plane stop its departure, Rick kills him in front of the police chief, Henri. Instead of arresting Rick, Henri tells his men that Major Strosser is dead and they should round up the usual suspects. Henri and Rick walk off into the darkness – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The movie ends right there – fade out, roll credits, end scene. It’s brilliant.

Instead of a four hour character drama, Casablanca did the same thing in ninety minutes and it became a benchmark for storytelling. Not to say that movies after it, especially in the 1940s and 50s didn’t try to hold on to the fun, no substance formula – they did, but Casablanca proved that a character drama could fit in the same amount of time given to those popcorn flicks. How does that apply to fiction writers?

Very simple. Your book is likely going to be a movie in your reader’s head. Tie those emotional knots and deliver them to the reader as close together as possible for the maximum emotional response. If you’ve cried at the end of a movie, you recognize this. Try to do the same in your writing – your readers will thank you.

Storytelling and Comic Books: What to Learn and What to Leave Behind

Can we just geek out over comics right now? Let’s.

I was introduced to comic books a little late in the game. My college roommate Danica was a proud, certifiable nerd. I was still in the closet and unsure if it was something I was willing to let myself become. One day, she invited me and our other roommate Ashley to Comic Book Club on campus. With only around ten members, the club had a comfy, family-vibe. What surprised me most was how welcoming everyone was, accepting of whoever came, conversing with them about whatever form of comics they were into. This included the guy who showed up who just really liked Dilbert.

Slowly, the members of Comic Book Club fed classics and newer works into my nerd IV, filling me with a new love for the medium. They took me to free comic book day, showed me the local comic book stores, and took me to see the new rash of comic book movies coming out at the time (X-Men: The Last Stand was our biggest Comic Book Club outing). I ended up writing my senior year Sociology paper on my university’s Comic Book Club, and my professor not only gave me an “A” but wanted to talk more about it after class.

What I wasn’t was a closeted book nerd. As an English major, you kind of give yourself away in that respect. I might even dare call myself (or would’ve called myself at the time) a book elitist. I didn’t read genre fiction, and found anything genre to be more on the entertainment side than on the enrichment side. So imagine my surprise when I loved comic books right away.

Over ten years later, skinnies and trades are a regular part of my balanced reading diet. In 2017, I read 104 books, 30 of those being comic book trades. I count them equal to any book in terms of enrichment and importance, something my 20-year-old self would call taboo.

However, there are some real and important differences between comic book and novel storytelling beyond the obvious, and they are important for writers to pay attention to.

Pacing.

Comics, by nature, are fast-paced. The reason for this is half of the story is told visually, and our brains process visual information much more quickly than reading words and conceptualizing those words into scenes in our minds. Also, in most comics, the majority of the words are conversation between characters, cutting out long descriptions, body language, and physical cues.

As writers, what can we learn from this? I’d argue learning pacing from comic books with caution. In many comics coming out today, the speed is breakneck. This is not always the best way for novels. Personally, I like a slower, blossoming effect, as I think it is more artful and immersive. Some indie comics are better for this effect (Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine and Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters come to mind). However, if your book requires fast-paced scenes, sharp scene breaks, and minimal to moderate character development (aka when story is king), then comic books are a fantastic source to learn from.

Dialogue. 

I love comic book dialogue. This is a no-brainer for me. Yes, all writers can learn sharp, concise dialogue from comic books, especially how to write humorous exchanges. In humorous dialogue, the pictures don’t matter – the snappy wit and curt replies do. You don’t even need to look at the characters faces to know if it’s effective. Brain K. Vaughn is a master at this, and his work should be on your to-read list.

Character Development.

In my mind, this is the most obvious hinderance when learning storytelling from comic books. In order to serve the story, most characters have classic and even clichéd flaws and personalities. That’s totally fine, and I’m not meaning to suggest it’s right or wrong. Because it’s fine, and most comic book writers use these tropes very well. However, most characters’ backstories aren’t fleshed out when compared to novel characters. Usually their backstories are only fleshed out as much as is needed in order to make the story believable, or to serve a story element or conflict.

Brevity. 

One of the most beautiful things in comic books, in my humble opinion, is the brevity. In half the time and space of a novel, a comic book writer can tell a complete story. It’s masterful, really, when done well. Many of my writer friends become bogged down in their long-ass word counts, wondering how they can cut 20-30k words from their manuscripts. Comic books only keep the most important stuff – and that’s a big lesson for novel writers to learn.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from comics? And what comics are you reading right now? Personally, I’m geeking out over Lumberjanes, Saga (of course, duh), Faith, and Paper Girls.