Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Wrong End of the Telescope

A writer I know was telling me about some trouble he had once with a novel. It seems that the protagonist, despite my writer friend's best efforts, would not come into focus for the reader. He was a shadowy, vague figure who resisted my friend's efforts to see him clearly.

"I just couldn't figure out who this guy was," he said. "It's like he was invisible."

Predictably, my writer friend complained about his troubles to his wife. "No matter how hard I try, I just can't see my main character. He's like this fixed point around which all the action of the story moves, but he himself is always out-of-focus."

"Maybe that's the problem," his wife said. "He's a fixed point. He's not really a character."

"Huh," said my writer friend.

"Maybe," his wife continued, "If he was a character in someone else's story, you could see him better. You could figure out who he is."

"Maybe," my writer friend said.

"Why don't you write the story from the point of view of the villain--the antagonist guy? You know him pretty well, right? If you have to look at your protagonist as a moving object--a character, you know--in the antagonist's story, you'll have to flesh him out, won't you? You'll have to make him 3-dimensional, I think."

And she was exactly right, and that's exactly what my writer friend did: he thought about the novel as being more from the antagonist's point of view. For the first time he really looked at his protagonist from the outside and could see who he was and what made him tick. The novel got a whole lot better when he rewrote it, and was eventually sold and published and my writer friend is working on another book now.

Also! You Americans out there! Don't forget to vote!


  1. Yay, a happy ending!

    There is a blogfest coming up that asks participants to do that very thing, rewrite a scene from another character's perspective. It's at sciensmulier.blogspot.com if anybody wants to sign up.

  2. Hey, awesome. That's what I had to do with Sublimation way back when. Hope I have a similar conclusion to my adventure.

  3. Oh, and my own telescope flip was also prompted by my wife's advice.

  4. Genie: Yes, a happy ending! Thanks for the link!

    Nevets: I remembered hearing this story on the bus this morning, when I was thinking (of course) about my own next novel. I have four distinct stories that run through the book, centered around four characters (though there is a single protagonist whose story holds all the other three stories together): The Explorer, The Adventurer, The Protagonist and The Heiress. I was thinking about how to handle POV for these four stories, and I thought that it would be good if you learned the most about each of these characters through the parts they play in each other's stories. If that makes sense.

  5. Scott, I love that idea. It feels somehow very... developed. If that makes sense.

  6. Nevets: My next book (working title = Nowhere But North) is going to be the most complex, difficult narrative I've ever written, but it's also going to be hella-cool and the complexities of the structure will be mostly invisible to the reader. (Do people still say "hella," or does that date me terribly?)

  7. And all this talk about cool new things and ideas always gets the creativity flowing and then I have to bite down and make myself finish the two books I'm already working on.

  8. This is a really good point. I know I've relied on things like this to see my characters better. Often, I think writers have to master the art of stepping into and out of other people, real or imagined.

    Your reminder to vote really just reminded me of how badly I want a puppy.

  9. Oooh, interesting! Sometimes you just have to turn that telescope around. I've done this as an exercise for myself to see my characters better. There is a part of the Snowflake Method that utilizes telling the story from the other character's points of view.

    I think we need to send Davin a puppy.

  10. One of the things I like to do in stories is have the protagonist's self image contradicted by what the people around him/her think. Usually they're closer to the mark about what s/he's really like than s/he is. I learned this trick from real life:

    Me: "Am I mean-spirited?"
    MR: "You really are, sometimes."
    Me: "I had no idea. I thought I was just being honest."
    MR: "No, you cross that line all the time. I'm sure you aren't trying to be a jerk."
    Me: "But I am anyway."
    MR: "Yeah, sometimes."
    Me: "Huh. Self-awareness sucks, man."

  11. I'm on board with getting Domey a puppy.

    Scott, that technique you described (which I learned from my own interactions with Rose lol) is really one of the cores of Sublimation, and it's been fun to do in such a stark way.

    Two first person POV's, not really interacting directly now, but with a past interaction that gives each a drastically different view of the other, increasingly impacting how the reader perceives the two because their impressions of one another are very different from how their first person perspective paints them.

    It's been a fun exercise. I think when it's done, it will be fun to read, too.

  12. Oh, and I vote yes on the ballot proposition to get Domey a puppy.

  13. I often hop POVs in a story anyway, but telling the story from the villain's viewpoint is always fun.

  14. Oh, and I'm sorry, but since it's election day here in my town of Innsmouth, I have to plug my candidate, who is, as always, Cthulhu. Why settle for a Lesser Evil?

    Cthulhu also likes puppies. Better not to ask why.

  15. Vote for Cthulhu and be eaten first! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. La! Shub' Niggurath! La!

  16. A superb tip. And timely. I've just been hatching a scene where I show what other people make of my MC - for this very reason.

  17. Scott, that new novel sounds fascinating.

    I love when separate stories are tied together that way (I did it with wedding guests and members of the bridal party in something I wrote and it unfolded very naturally- the story tied itself together on its own.)

    It would be hella cool to see what you'd do with that kind of storytelling :D

    I've unintentionally done the whole switching off thing more than once when a secondary character's voice came in stronger than my intended lead's and I ended up just letting them run with it. I've not been sorry yet. They always seem to know exactly where they're taking me.

    Oh, and Domey totally needs a puppy.

    My cat has been nagging me for a puppy for years now...

    I'd adore a little Westie but if I was serious about adopting I know it'd have to be a mutt...I always have to go with the underdog over purebred (and did no one ever wonder exactly what Underdog's "secret energy pill" was in that ring? Cause years later, I sure do.

    Sweet Polly Purebread, indeed.


  18. I get that. When I started my current novel I wrote it in the third person but it wasn’t working. I then rewrote it in the first person and it was better but it wasn’t until I had my narrator tell her story to someone specific that she started to feel like a real person.


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