When we first started writing, back when we were scrambling to figure out how novels and series and worldbuilding all worked, I put a little note to myself on the side of a basket I could see from my chair that said “Pwn the POV.” (Definition of “pwned” here. Bless you Urban Dictionary.) Heaven knows I didn’t feel like I was doing much of anything right at that point (and I wasn’t), but I felt what I most needed to address were my characters’ POVs. I may have been doing a lot wrong, but this instinct was absolutely right. So many of my early struggles as a writer could be fixed by understanding my characters’ voices better. And this is something I always push myself to remember, even now.
For instance, writing good setting description is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. At one point, to try and find some guidance on how to do this better, I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and began rereading the first chapter. (If my memory is correct, it was this experiment that led to the rule that I’m not allowed to read Joe Abercrombie when I’m writing, because I admire his writing so much it makes me want to give up.) Anyhow, the point is he describes his heroine’s ride to a palace with her brother, interspersing their amusing dialogue with her observations like: “The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink.” Monza, being a mercenary, also notes several times the palace’s defensive placement, including: “She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.” All of this description says as much about Monza as it does the setting. It’s also fantastic foreshadowing, and establishes the tone for the chapter and the book as a whole. All because Abercrombie absolutely owns the POV, how Monza thinks and what she sees.
But not every author manages as well. As I think more about my upcoming epistolary novel, I was interested in reading The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for my book club. The book consists of journals and letters, and I was hoping to pick up some tips on how to manage the structure. And I suppose I did learn some things not to do. Throughout this story of English women on the WWII home front, I rarely felt as though the POVs rang true. For instance, in a 17 year-old girl’s letter to her best friend, the writer refers to her best friend’s mother as “Mrs. Quail.” Why on earth would the writer simply not have said, “your mother”? And everyone writes their letters and journals as though they are aware this is a novel, which requires heavy doses of what is implied to be exact dialogue. If, perhaps, one character had an affectation that she was writing her journal novelistically, that might have been a clever choice, but most people don’t write correspondence as though it is a Charlotte Bronte novel. And not to badger this poor book too viciously, since it has been much read and well reviewed, but I also have to mention the lack of understanding the character’s mind frame when writing. What 13 year-old girl writes an eloquent, detailed description of her entire day, which ends with her father literally taking a horsewhip to her back? The POVs just aren’t credible to me.
J and I have also been talking about how understanding your characters can make or break plot-heavy television. Now, it might seem as though characters are not the natural focal point of fast-paced, plot-driven TV, but we think a tight handle on character is what made The Vampire Diaries more successful than other shows that attempt to fly through plot at that extreme CW pace J has discussed before. So often I find myself watching plot-heavy shows and wishing the story would slow down and allow the characters to breathe. (The 100 and Versailles are two that come to mind.) And yet, I never find myself wishing The Vampire Diaries would go slower, even though that show manages to squeeze more plot into one season than many do in three. J is actually the one who put his finger on what separates TVD from so many other shows—the main characters are always making the plot happen and doing it in ways clearly recognizable for their character. Damon is always trying to fix some problem, most likely caused by his essential Damon-ness, and doing so in a very Damon-like way. It is never a case of sacrificing character development for plot, because all of that crazy plot is driven by the characters behaving in character. Which also means that not every story can be told at that extreme speed, because not all stories have characters who behave that way. Anyhow, something to think about.