Characters & Viewpoint (by Orson Scott Card)
A review by Dr Julia Archer
There are many books on how to write better fiction, and most of them can be helpful. But if you only have the time and finances to invest in one book, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint. It’s a friendly and easy-to-follow guide that actually covers many more topics than the title suggests.
Card is a prolific and much-awarded author in many genres, beginning in the 1960s with stage plays and musical comedies, and progressing, via screenplays and short stories, to the first novel in his famed YA science fiction Ender’s Series (which has seen him twice awarded both Hugo and Nebula awards). His other fiction series range from traditional sci-fi to Biblical novels, contemporary fantasy to medieval fantasy reinvented for an American frontier setting, and most recently graphic novels. He is a reviewer, columnist, commentator, poet, blogger and teacher of writing and literature at Southern Virginia University. His also offers free writing workshops on his website (www.hatrack.com).
Characters & Viewpoint is divided into three broad sections: Inventing Characters, Constructing Characters and Performing Characters. It isn’t possible in a short review to do justice to the entire book, but every aspect lends weight to the salient point that in writing a book, an author enters into an implicit contract with the reader, a contract that must be honoured. Although there’s more to honouring the contract than coming up with great characters, it’s the characters and their story that a reader invests in, and wants to see resolved some way. Without convincing characters, there will be no contract with the reader. Concerning character, then, here are some key points Card makes clear in Chapter One, What is a Character?
In real life, so in fiction, we know people by what we see them do; a character is what he does. But because in fiction (but not always in life) we are granted access to a character’s most subjective motivations, we can say a character is not simply what he does, but also what he means to do. Readers of fiction love gaining this access to a character’s inner life; for the writer, the trick to providing this inside knowledge of a character’s motives is in giving one’s characters a history. In fiction, as in real life, familiar people are safe, non-threatening and, for the most part, boring. Readers warm to the familiar, but Card reminds us how important it is to surprise your readers and light their curiosity by subverting the stereotype, upending the familiar, jeopardising the outcome, boosting the threat, or jolting them with the twist they never saw coming.
According to Card, another vital way to build rounded characters is to situate them communities, in networks – are they the same person at home as at work, with friends as with clients, with parents as with classmates, now as in the past you gave them? Hopefully not! Card also stresses the importance of Interrogating the Character. On this front, he cautions, never settle for the first answer s/he gives you! What talents and abilities, tastes and preferences, do your characters have? (One of my characters now sneaks off once a week to play backgammon and pick up gossip. It’s not pivotal to the plot, but it makes him less a cardboard figure, adding depth to his personality. For the same reason another character was given the ability to mimic voices.)
In Chapter Two, What Makes a Good Fictional Character? Card draws our attention to Three Questions Readers Ask when they pick up your book. Taken together, these questions remind the writer of his or her ultimate responsibility to the reader. The questions are:
Question #1: So What?
Why should I care about what’s going on in this story? Why is this important? Why shouldn’t I go downstairs and watch TV? If this is all the story’s about, I’m through with it.
Question #2: Oh yeah?
Come on, I don’t believe anybody would do that. That isn’t the way things work. That was pretty convenient, wasn’t it? How dumb does this author think I am? I’m through with this story.
Question #3: Huh? What’s happening? This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know who’s talking or what they’re talking about. Where is this stuff happening? Either I can’t read or this author can’t write, but either way I’m through with this book.
As mentioned, a short review cannot cover all the great advice set forth in a book such as this, but it is worth mentioning that Card has a firm grip on the psychology that underwrites good fiction, as is made abundantly clear in Chapter Seven, How to Raise the Emotional Stakes: Suffering, Sacrifice, Jeopardy, Sexual Tension, Signs and Portents, and again in Chapter Eight, What Should We Feel About the Character?
Suffice to say, putting into practice the many and various insights of Card’s book will make it more likely your reader stays engaged with your characters through all the tumult and twists and turns of your story, until they (and the reader) arrive together at the final full stop. And it will also make it more likely that your reader keeps looking out for your next book.
Dr Julia Archer is a South Australian writer with a passion for reading and writing short YA fiction. In her work she often draws from her years of experience living in Central Asia. She is currently working on a YA novel and her other interests include family, more travel, and reading the new work of other writers.