Point of View—CoronaLife Day 390

As many of you know, I am very into genealogy, which sometimes means learning about the history of the place your ancestors came from. Thankfully, I like history, so this is not burdensome. I have been researching the Kings of Scotland and England lately. And I have been treated up close to the concept of point of view—and that the villain is always the hero of their own story.

Reading the histories, some written by Scottish researchers, some by English researchers, you can see the different points of view. Scotland and England were enemies from ancient times. Even when they weren’t technically at war there were raids across the border, and schemes and plots to take Scotland and make it part of England.

I happened to research the Scotland history first, and the theme was the constant struggle to remain an independent country while England kept trying to make her a feudal state, bowing to English sovereignty. They mostly raided into England either in self-defense, or to uphold the mutual-defense pact they had with France.

Then I switched to the same history but from the English side, and sure enough, it was mostly them trying to take over Scotland. Sometimes it was to try and make them submit, sometimes it was pre-emptive strikes because they were afraid Scotland was going to attack, and sometimes it was because England was at war with France and Scotland was her ally.

The one main point where they differed was this: England claimed that Scotland had, in fact, submitted to them as a vassal state and they were the rightful sovereigns, while Scotland said that was false. Yet this claim of submission was the basis for many of the attacks of England into Scotland.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. It is true that in 1174, King William the Lion of Scotland, captured by the English, swore fealty to King Henry II and made Scotland a vassal state under English sovereignty. But it is equally true that the next English king, Richard the Lionheart, released Scotland from vassal status in 1189 in exchange for money to go on Crusade—a transaction Richard’s successors conveniently overlooked.

It is also true that during the Great Cause of 1292, when Scotland literally had no clear heir to the throne, English King Edward I was asked to help determine which contender to the Scottish throne had the best case. King Edward chose a man called John Balliol—largely because he was pliant and agreed to make Scotland a vassal state to England. Although King John Balliol was crowned, the nation of Scotland rose in rebellion, and the Scottish Wars of Independence (led by William Wallace and the future King Robert the Bruce) made it clear that the people would not accept this. At the conclusion of these wars, in 1328, England formally acknowledged Scotland’s independence with the Treaty of Northampton.

It was interesting to see how the point of view made all the difference as to who were the aggressors, the aggrieved, and the heroes. The facts remained the same, but the undercurrent, the slant was always different. Each side was very sure their kings were acting for the good of their country. Each side was the hero of their own story.

So it was a real-world lesson as to how point of view can work in our stories. Opponents looking the same set of events will see and interpret them differently depending on the lens they see them through. It can be subtle, or it can be stark. Even people on the same side might interpret events differently, which can lend extra conflict and tension to scenes.

Oh, and for the record, all of England’s insistence that Scotland was a vassal state came to naught, for in 1603 the King of Scotland, James VI, succeeded to the throne of England as well, becoming King James the VI and I of Great Britain.

When the Hero is not the Protagonist

Disney's Peter Pan

Disney’s Peter Pan

My preschooler has moved back to watching Disney’s Peter Pan this week. Seeing it again (and again and again…) reminded me of something I had noticed during her last obsession with it. Specifically, I noted that Peter Pan was the hero, but was not the protagonist.

Wendy is the protagonist.

Sure, Peter Pan is who the show is about—and he certainly has many heroic adventures! But Wendy is the character who changes through the course of the story, and it is through her lens that we view the story.

In my understanding, the hero of any story is who the story is about, while the protagonist is the character who changes and whose POV we use to understand the story. In the vast majority of stories, this is the same person. But in some, as in Peter Pan, they are two distinct people.

What are the benefits of splitting these functions?

  1. Emotional anchor

When your hero doesn’t change, or is so different from the reader that the reader cannot relate to them, a separate protagonist can serve as an emotional anchor. Wendy is a typical young girl, and the viewers can latch on to her during this wild ride with a boy who never grows up and whose emotional reactions are either lacking or not what most people would feel.

  1. Point of View

A separate protagonist provides a lens through which to see the hero. Peter does not have the emotional maturity to view life as anything but an adventure. Had we been locked into his view of life, the view would have been much sound and fury signifying nothing. Wendy’s viewpoint provides us with a different angle, where we can see the often frightening events in Neverland, and also see the value of friendship and family—things Peter does not value.

  1. Acceptance of over-the-top heroes and actions

Finally, a separate protagonist gives us distance. We come to an unbelievable world and character with Wendy, who is a stranger in a strange land as well. Through her acceptance of Peter Pan and Neverland as real, we are able to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the adventure.

A careful watching of Peter Pan shows clearly that Wendy is our anchor. The story begins and ends with her, it follows her change, and the Disney version even hints that perhaps all the unbelievable adventure was simply a dream (the stage play does not leave this ambiguous, as the Lost Boys come home with the Darling children). Wendy is the emotional and moral compass of the show, while Peter Pan provides the swashbuckles and pixie dust.

What other stories use this split function device? Can you think of any more benefits when the hero is not the protagonist? Have you ever used it?

War Horse: The Use of POV in Book & Movie

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982, was a favorite book of mine as a kid. I remember reading it multiple times (back in the days when I actually had time to read things more than once!). When I heard it was going to be made into a movie, I was a little leery of seeing it, in case the movie didn’t live up to the memory.


Perhaps luckily for me (and Steven Spielberg) my memory is not so good. All I really remembered from the book was that it was told from the horse’s point of view, and that he “fought” on both the English and German sides.

I wondered how Spielberg and the movie writers would handle the whole POV issue. Aside from the rather cheesy option of having a horse voice-over, there didn’t seem a way he could pull it off. Turns out that he did have some non-horse POV in there, which worked well and allowed the human story to come through.

What I thought was brilliant, though, was that Spielberg and the writers understood something about the book that I, as a child reading it, did not. Most war stories are told from one side or the other. Someone is always the bad guy. In War Horse, the horse Joey tells the story. He is on neither side—or rather, he is on both, beginning as English cavalry and then working as a German ambulance and artillery horse. This allowed Morpurgo and Spielberg to simply show the war and let the readers or viewers make up their own minds. Instead of vilifying either side, the movie held up the insanity of war, cast an impartial eye on it, and asked us if this was the best humankind could be.

World War I was especially heinous because the armies were at a crossroads of technology. They were still fighting with cavalry tactics against machine guns and tanks. Thousands of soldiers died needlessly in stupid attacks that should never have been tried. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie (spoiler alert!) was an English cavalry charge on an unsuspecting German camp. The sweeping visuals of 300 horses charging in formation, the thunder of their hooves, and the shouts of their riders made them seem invincible. Indeed, the German soldiers, caught unprepared, fell in droves as they raced for the shelter of the nearby woods. The woods…I nearly jumped up out of my seat, wanting to scream at the cavalry to retreat, retreat!

In an eyeblink, everything changed. The massive cavalry charged right into a line of machine guns hidden in the woods. In a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching few minutes, the machine guns chattered away, and a stream of riderless horses leapt over the gun line. An eternity of riderless horses… It was one of the most powerful images in the movie, and one of the most compelling scenes as a whole that I have seen.

By maintaining this impartial eye, Spielberg was able to show us humans at our best and at our worst. We are left to wonder if we have come very far from the carnage of World War I. If we have learned anything at all. If we could be as strong, forgiving, and noble as the four-legged hero of this film. If we are worthy of a War Horse.

Description in YA

Description is hard. At least, writing it well is hard. While I have come a long way from the boring, plot-stopping descriptive bombs I used to write, I am still improving my craft in that area.

I am taking a YA writing workshop with Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, and we discussed description very early on. I found out several things about using description in YA:

1. Less is more. Trust your readers. Give the reader enough to interpret the space and place your character inhabits, but do not inundate with details. As author Patty Jansen reminds us in an excellent blog post, certain genres like historical or science fiction, where world-building is needed will of necessity have more scene-setting descriptions than those set in the present day, but be sparing in choosing your details—tell us what we need to know, and no more.

2. Description should be woven into the character’s experience, rather than an objective observation. Since most YA is written from a specific (often first-person) point of view, the Main Character (MC) will only notice details important to her at that time.

3. Any detail you mention should be important to the story. For instance, if you mention that your MC dropped a pot into the porcelain sink as a child and broke the sink, then that event must have some meaning to the core of the story. If you say that the MC loves the fact that the microwave is hidden in the breadbox, then that detail must be important later in the story. This is similar to the adage “If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you must fire it by the end of the play.”

4. Every detail has to multitask. Just as your MC will not notice details that do not directly concern him at that moment, he will also notice (and describe) them in a way that reflects his emotional state and life view at that moment. The way his perception of a place, object, or person changes will help build character and show emotion without “telling.” One of the best examples I found of this was in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Her descriptions of the passing seasons mirrored Melinda’s growth and healing.

5. Description can add foreshadowing and complication to a story. For example, if the reader first sees a kitchen through the MC’s eyes as warm and homey, but later sees that same kitchen as cold and menacing later in the story. The first instance builds the expectation in the reader that something bad will happen to destroy that happy, homey feeling (this is YA fiction, after all—something always happens to disrupt the happy status quo!).

6. Use description to build an image system throughout the story. Again returning to Speak, Halse Anderson’s use of Melinda’s art project (a tree) also showed her growth and return to life as Melinda wrestled with repeated mistakes but improved every time she tried to carve it.

7. Don’t info-dump. Beware of show-stopping blocks of description and layer in the information as the reader needs to know it. Have the reader ask the question and then answer it. This type of back-and-forth between the reader and the words on the page is what keeps the reader engaged and immersed in the world you have built.

I hope you found these tips as helpful as I did. I hope to apply them to my current manuscripts in the next round of edits!

Are there any other description tips you would like to share?

The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

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