Category Archives: POV

Taking it down to the studs

Hello Readers!

Back here with my second post as a Fictorian, and the subject couldn’t be more timely. Damage control is a broad subject, but my case is very personal and very specific. I found myself deep in a manuscript headed in the wrong direction, and my early results at damage control only made things worse.

To set the stage- -for the past several months I have been working on my new novel, which is a historical fantasy set in 1950s Nepal. I’m a pre-planner, and thus I had my whole arc planned out, the whole novel outlined and charted and graphed to the nth degree. All of this based on a simple set of dual facts. My main character would be an American (we’ll call him Steve) and the primary sidekick character would be a local young Sherpa girl (we’ll call her Chenji). I set them up for somewhat of a brother/sister relationship with lots of fun adventures, etc.

Off to the races I went, writing about the first half of the story in one big push. Steve had POV for most of the chapters, with Chenji getting a few from her viewpoint as well. As I wrote, some problems started creeping into the back of my head. I wasn’t really aware of them, it was more like that smell that warns you something might be burning in the oven. You sort of notice it, but it’s not enough to get your brain out of the chair and into the kitchen.

So, I put the book in front of some trusted readers. There was a lot that they liked, but on the negative side they came back with two major pieces of feedback:

  • Steve was boring as hell
  • Chenji was really interesting, but she wasn’t featured enough

Reading this feedback, I felt my (surprised) conscious mind make contact with my (un-suprised) subconscious. Yeah – I guess I already knew this was a problem. Thinking back on my writing sessions, I realized I had been bored writing Steve’s sections, and quite energized while writing Chenji’s.

I could fill a whole new blog post with why I was bored with one character and energized with another, but I’ll do my best to stay on point here. Both my beta readers and I agreed that I had a problem, and we agreed on what that problem was.

The question was: what to do about it?

My first instinct was to troubleshoot Steve and figure out why he didn’t resonate that much for me. I won’t spend time on my process, though it too would be a good subject for another article someday. Suffice to say I came to the conclusion that Steve wasn’t working as the main character because he wasn’t designed to be one. In truth, Chenji had much more going for her: more stakes, more local resonance (the story is in her homeland after all) and a better character arc.

Here finally we arrive at the *real* subject of my post. On one hand, I have the wrong main character for about 45,000 words worth of work. On the other hand: 45,000 words of work! Was I just going to throw all that out and start over?

I really didn’t want to redo all that work. I made a choice that I would swap the focus and the roles, giving Chenji not just the lead role but also the majority of actions I previous had assigned to Steve. It wasn’t as simple as: find <Steve> replace with <Chenji>, but there was some of that spirit in there.

In the end, this was the wrong choice. In the end it was not because the action in chapters was designed for Steve, because I did extensively modify the action to accommodate Chenji’s skills and abilities. No, it was because those actions and those scenes were designed for Steve’s character. His motivations, his story. They didn’t tell Chenji’s story as well.

Additionally, because Chenji came from a culture that would be more unfamiliar to many of my readers, her backstory was peppered with terminology and mores that were more complex. In the end, I laid these on too thick and the scenes became very jargon heavy.

This time, it was harder for me to see these problems. I was, in effect, doing a minor renovation. Painting a wall here, adding some nice tile there. I was too close to these scenes to judge them in their new, modified state. When my readers got a hold of them, their feedback was clear: They loved the new focus, but they were very confused and things just didn’t flow correctly.

In the end, I realized my renovations had not gone far enough. In an effort to preserve some of my previous work, I had used duct tape and paint where dynamite and sledgehammers were needed. 

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I needed to things down to the studs as it were. Almost everything of those early chapters had to be taken out and completely redone from a blank page to better fit Chenji and her role in the story. It means throwing out (or at least, putting to the side) weeks of work and starting over. 

Painful, but in this case it was the right choice. That’s where I am right now with this project. I started with blank pages, fresh framing on which to hang the new drywall of my story. I have been writing all new scenes for both Chenji and Steve, and it is going a lot better. I can feel that it is better, and I am confident my readers will think so too.

So, the lessons learned here for me were plenty:

At all times, listen to that voice in the back of your head. Check in with yourself while writing. Are you excited to write this chapter or are you bored? Are the some characters you enjoy writing more than others? These are early clues you might be headed in a problematic direction.

Sometimes minor changes are all you need to correct an issue, whether it is one you noticed on your own, or an issue several readers might be mentioning. A new line here to illustrate a motivation better or an additional scene to allow the pacing to breathe. The same scene being told from a different character’s POV. Changes that allow you to keep some of your previous work.

Other times though- -you need to break out the sledgehammer. Pull up that tile, rip out the plumbing and teardown the drywall. I’m not going to lie, that’s not my job folks. It’s going to hurt and it’s going to hurt a lot.

Sometimes, you have to go back to the studs.

See you next time!

More Than Rice and Kung Fu

A few months ago I watched the Chinese New Year episode of Fresh Off the Boat. In the episode the Huang family was looking for a new year celebration to since they couldn’t make it back to DC to celebrate with the rest of the family. They found one organized by the Orlando Chinese American Society. Unfortunately the society was comprised of non-Asians who didn’t have a clue as to what Chinese New Year was about or how it was celebrated.

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Yeah…that is not a traditional dragon dance.

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However, that is the traditional reaction to well-meaning displays of “Asian culture”.

I’m not trying to shame the organizers of such events, or authors of Asian flavored stories. Five points to their house for trying. But they’re not going to win their house the cup because they made a big mistake. They mistook the stereotype(s) for the truth.

There’s one thing that a lot of non-Asians don’t understand: most Asians are not Fu Manchu, Kung Fu master, dragon lady, tiger moms. We don’t talk like Christmas Eve or Charlie Chan, and we definitely are NOT Long Duk Dong. Geisha are not prostitutes, and just because we’re not white doesn’t mean that we were born in the land of our ethnicity — and just because we were born elsewhere doesn’t mean it was so we could claim citizenship.

Yes, that may come across a little harsh but it’s hard to be calm and collected when it’s 2016 and people still think that 200 year old misconceptions are the truth. When I played Christmas Eve in Avenue Q I was given the direction to play that character (which was already a soul-killing stereotype) as a tiger mom because “I knew what that was.” They implied that I knew because my mom was a tiger mom; because all Asian moms are tiger moms. Well guess what? I don’t know what that’s like. My mom is not a tiger mom. Heck, my entire family is sans tigris. Even when my mom wears tiger print she is not a tiger mom.

I didn’t get mad at the director for that because they weren’t trying to offend me — believe me, I’ve experienced that enough to recognize it. They simply didn’t care enough to learn if what they thought Asians were like was the truth or a stereotype. And that’s the biggest secret about writing about any ethnicity that isn’t your own. You have to care enough to do the research.

So how do you get it right? First, you can’t assume that we’re all the same. There are 48 countries and over 2,000 languages in Asia. Some of those countries, like China, have so many regional identities and dialects that there isn’t one standard Chinese identity. Then there are mixed race individuals, like myself, whose cultural identity is a blend of their country of birth and their country of heritage. Skin tones can also vary with the region. So if you’re writing an Asian character, I recommend that you not only pick a country for them to hail from but also pick a specific region or city. Keep in mind that the more remote the place the harder it will be to do the next step.

Research. The best research for this is to interview someone of that ethnicity, from that region. We’re not hard to find. Call or email Asian associations or community centers. If you’re feeling particularly brave you could go to an Asian market or a restaurant that serves the cuisine of the country you chose and ask the staff if there’s anyone from ______ place that you could interview for your book. I do recommend that if you’re at a restaurant that you eat a meal there. Not only is it polite but you might be able to interview a staff member while you dine.

If you are able to interview them on the spot make sure you get their contact info so you can ask them any questions that might pop up later AND so you can have them read the manuscript to make sure you were accurate. This part is key because there’s not only a difference in custom but of mindset. An action that seems perfectly reasonable here might be horrifying to that culture and vice versa.

You can also read autobiographies of people of that ethnicity, from that region. Biographies, histories, and websites work too but make sure they’re from a reputable source. If it was written by a non-native and they’re citing non-native sources, don’t trust it.

It’s our responsibility, I’d even go as far as to say it’s our moral obligation as writers to create characters that are authentic because readers assume that we know what we’re writing about. If we don’t care enough to get it right then we offend readers of that ethnicity — thus losing them as readers — AND we mislead and misinform the readers who aren’t familiar with that ethnicity. Also, by misrepresenting that group we’re ultimately contributing to the cultural oppression of that group — even though we don’t mean to.

You can find out more about Kim May here.

A Hero That’s Not a Hero…But Still Is

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Hero is exactly what the title and poster suggests. It’s about a hero and his incredibly difficult quest that will bring joy to the masses. What isn’t depicted here is that there isn’t one hero, but two — each with their own quest.

It took multiple viewings for me to figure this out. At first I was so blown away by the amazing fight sequences and gorgeous scenery. It’s clearly Zhang Yimou’s masterwork. They didn’t spare any expense or effort and the results were worth it. It’s the most stunning piece of cinema I’ve ever seen. Here’s a taste:

The story is told from the hero’s point of view as he recounts to the emperor the events that earned him an audience and the sizable reward for eliminating the emperor’s enemies. Each stage of his journey is shown in a different color and each color has a corresponding emotional theme — red for passion and anger, blue for logic and sadness, green for fear and desperation, black for resolve, and white for hope and mourning. Each stage of the tale bring another level of depth to the story, makes us care about the hero as well as the assassins he brought down. However the emperor knows the assassins well and sees through all this as an elaborate plot to kill him.

Which it is.

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This is where it becomes clear that the man we’ve been led to believe is the hero is actually the villain. The real hero is the emperor. The emperor, who is a warmongering self-appointed ruler, deserves the enemies that he’s acquired. However everything he did was for the greater good, not for that generation but for all those to follow. When the hero/now villain realizes this he has a change of heart and despite being given the opportunity to kill the emperor, chooses to spare his life. When he leaves the palace the emperor’s guards execute him.

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Death by pincushion. Ouch!

This is why I find this film so fascinating. Only in the East would they think to make the hero a villain, who then redeems themselves in the end by becoming the hero at great sacrifice. The additional twist of making the villain a hero once we’ve learned more about them is a powerful storytelling tool; one that I think is often overlooked. It also provides a deep moral that can be interpreted many ways. It keeps the audience thinking long after the story is over… and lures them back again, and again.

As writers isn’t that what we want to accomplish? To write a story that’s so unexpected and compelling that the readers return to it and discuss it many times? To create something that changes the way they see the world around them?

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It’s something to meditate on.

You can find out more about Kim May here.

Television’s One-Off POV

There is a prevailing wisdom in the fiction writing world that says one should never introduce a new POV late in a story, especially if they do not have a prevailing impact on the plot. Usually, all the POV characters need to be introduced as early as possible, usually in the first act of a story. For films, this is pretty essential. There simply isn’t enough time for a new character, much less a new character with a distinct POV, to show up and get our attention when dealing with a medium that sticks to around 2 hours for the entire tale. In books, the rule can be finagled about, if you’ve got the chops, but instances where an author is successful when introducing a new POV after a story’s midpoint are more exceptions than rules. But in television, it can be a very different story.

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about where a known sidekick gets their own episode to play around with. I’m talking about when completely new characters usurp an episode, showing us the same events and/or world, without benefit of a recurring character taking any control of the story. And, in most cases, you never see those new characters after the episode ends.

There are a few examples of this that have really stuck with me. The one that comes most readily to mind is an episode of Babylon 5 (yes, I know, I’m totally dating myself here). In “A View from the Gallery”, we get a day in the life of two of the station’s maintenance workers. For most of the episode, the pair are only tangentially affected by the crisis that would have (and in varying forms has) been the basis of any other episode. We get glimpses of what would normally be center stage, mostly through overheard conversations and the like. Star Trek – The Next Generation had a similar episode called “Lower Decks” where we follow 4 ensigns as they buck for promotion. While one of the characters had been introduced in a barely-there minor role in an earlier season, the experience of seeing through her and her fellow’s eyes as they vie for prominence aboard the Enterprise, created a completely different experience than any episode before or after.

If we want to look in the 21st century, Dr. Who has done this a number of times. There was “Love and Monsters”, where a group of witnesses to the Doctor’s antics create a support group called LINDA that is taken over by an alien. In fan favorite “Blink”, we follow Sally Sparrow as she, and the rest of us, get sucked into the first appearance of the uber creepy Weeping Angels, who can only move when you’re not looking at them.

Part of why I think this works for television has to do specifically with the type of show. All three shows are highly episodic. While there were overriding plot lines that traveled over multiple episodes, these shows were created in the pre-novel-adaptation era, where the soap opera aspect of carrying one storyline over an entire season, or multiple seasons, was almost non-existent. Additionally, in the first two examples, both episodes took place in the show’s last season, where the episodic format was so deeply ingrained that any deviation made us sit up and pay more attention. In Dr. Who’s case, while the show continues on well past these particular episodes, the show has been on and off the air for over 50 years, so if you’re unclear about how things work by now, you’re not watching enough Dr. Who. In any case, when the structure of how a tale is told is so set, looking at that structure from a different viewpoint gave these stories something new and refreshing. And, as it’s only one episode in a weekly television show, it doesn’t really distract from the overall experience, especially in this day and age of binging your favorite show over a weekend…or two. These little side tales manage to keep the show going while giving us a break from the same old thing we get every other week.

Another big pro to one-off characters is how much they open the world up from the small cadre who seem to always be in the middle of everything. Suddenly, the events that might as well have only happened to five or six people, now have far wider repercussions. Additionally the propensity of placing powerful or special people at the center of the story, makes these one-off POV characters stand out, as they are usually run-of-the-mill everyman characters. You’re much closer to putting the audience in the story with a character who isn’t at the top of the chain of command or a Time Lord.

Lastly, and most importantly, I think, the one-off POV characters that work the best do so because the episodes in which they live are more about the characters than the crises happening around them. Sure, “Love and Monsters” has an alien killing of the members of LINDA, but the true focus is the love story between two of the group’s members. The alien attack in “A View from the Gallery” is more setting than plot for the two guys just going about their day. Sure, these characters are here and gone again, but we get a very solid understanding of who they are and empathize with them for the short time they are there. And while they may not have a prevailing impact on how the story of the main characters who we follow on a weekly basis ends up, the best ones usually make an impact that can stick with us long after they’re gone.