My fiction writing is heavily character driven. I decide on two major characters who are in conflict with each other, together with some supporting characters. The mistake I made in my first draft was to have too many points of view (POV). It seems this is the biggest problem area faced by most debut novelists. Firstly should it be first or third person?
First person viewpoints are limiting as you can only write about how ‘I’ sees things. It does mean you can go into greater depth in a way a narrator of a third person novel cannot.
The POV is about through which character’s eyes are we seeing the story unfold? Do we know how they are feeling and what they are thinking? Character 2 can’t speak for Character 1. They can observe how they behave and how it makes them feel but speaking on the behalf of another person would make the whole story feel contrived.
In my book I had about 6 viewpoints which my editor said made it bitty and confusing. She advised me to limit it to 2 or 3 which meant a heavy rewrite. Other editors might disagree and say that many viewpoints give a story breadth. This is why working with an editor is so useful. They are invested in how the reader will perceive your work and not solely in how you want to write it. You have to decide what you want to achieve and do it in the most effective way. I must admit I wanted to use the first person as my novel drew parallels to my personal story.
Character development is your next consideration. People are made up of character traits and that applies to your fictional characters. Nobody is a hundred percent saintly or devil. Find the Achilles heel of your main characters. Maybe no matter how cruel they are to people they love dogs. Or if you have written in a timid character, show how s/she can lose her temper and break things when really pushed. I think about people I’ve counselled and trained over the years. I’ve seen them thrust into conflicting and challenging situations and watched how they behave. It’s quite astonishing to watch darker sides of the personality emerge when under threat. People react in different ways under stress so your novel needs an acceleration of stress points leading to a peak. This will test your characters and make them believable. Your reader needs to warm to at least one of your characters and is eager to know what happens to them. It keeps the pages turning.
Another key consideration for first time novelists and again something I learned the hard way, is the Show not Tell rule.
Don’t tell us that the old woman cackled. Describe the cackle. What happens to her face, her mouth? What kind of sound does she make? Is it like a strangled noise in her throat? You decide. You’re in charge but let us hear, feel and sense it. Telling us, as the narrator, is passive and lazy. You need to draw us into the action through the characters not on behalf of them.
A few ways to know if you are telling and not showing is the use of adverbs; angrily, slowly, painfully. Instead of he said angrily, why not show his anger by writing, ‘he slammed down the phone and slapped his hand against his thumping heart… that’s just an example to give you the idea. Another one might be: It was Autumn. Instead write something like, The lawn was covered in wet brown leaves.
So, using these examples, show how the weather was very cold, the man was tired, the child was excited. It’s a valuable writing exercise. Obviously you can’t do this all the time but if you want to add pace to your story then it’s worth working on it. When I do my fourth or fifth edit, I am looking specifically for Show not Tell improvements.
In the next part, I’ll talk about dialogue. It’s my favourite part of writing.