Sunday, February 10, 2013

Books for Writers #4 - Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint

(Sorry for the delay posting this, but I somehow managed to superglue the pages of the book together...)

This week’s recommendation is Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. It's part of the Write Great Fiction series, and a great read for anyone wishing to add more depth to their stories.

Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint is loaded with useful advice, information and exercises that you can apply from the very beginning--no matter the writing stage you're in.

Chapters one to seven focus on creating deep and believable characters, chapters eight to eleven discuss emotion, and chapters twelve to sixteen manage point of view. The transition from one topic to another is very well done and easy to follow, as each chapter builds on the previous ones.

Kress delves into so much detail—and offers so much advice—that it's difficult to choose just a couple points to comment on in this review. There's just so much going on in this book and it's all so great!

For example, in the chapters on how to create characters, the author defines each type of character, gives advice on making (good or bad) first impressions, tackling a character's social masks and true motivations, offering interesting backstory, giving your characters inner turmoil and conflicting desires… She even gives specific character portraits for genre fiction (characterization in romance, in westerns, in sci-fi...). 

A great chapter on characterization is Chapter 5: Showing change in your characters—If I knew then what I know now. Showing character change and development can be, as Kress says, overwhelming. Her main advice is to break down the task and write in scenes—and specify exactly what each scene "is supposed to accomplish". I have to admit I learned a lot from this section, and have been trying my best to apply it to my own work.

After the section on characterization, the author goes on to comment emotion. Kress offers us this great example:

All the following statements […] are made spontaneously by characters who have just learned that their dogs have been run over by a speeding truck:

- "Oh my God, no! No! Oh, not Cinnamon—no!"
- "Goddam $#%@*& driver! I'll kill him!"
- "Where is she? Can I see her? Who picked up the body?"
- "Did she suffer? Oh, please say death was instantaneous!"
- "I just let her out a minute… oh, God, I should have put her on the leash… oh, it's my fault… poor Cinnamon…"

- Silence.

All these examples are very short, yet they already show us character emotions—and character traits, thus reminding readers of everything we learned in previous chapters. See how it's all linked together?

Other techniques Kress comments on while discussing emotion are clich├ęd techniques, showing emotion through metaphor and sensory detail, special cases of emotion (loving, fighting and dying) and frustration. Yes, the author dedicates an entire chapter to introduce frustration as a valuable tool to nudge characters along and keep readers interested. Very interesting indeed!

As for point of view, Kress starts out by defining protagonist and point of view character, and then gives advice on how to choose the point of view character, as well as how many there should be (hint: as few as possible to still tell your story).

After giving a quick description of each type of point of view (first, third, and omniscient—as well as experimental and combinations of first and third), the author gives us in-depth information and guidance on the three main types of point of view. This is great help for anyone who struggles with defining clear points of view.

All in all, Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint is yet another great reference book for creative writers. If you’re having trouble showing emotion, if your characters act more like paper dolls than real people, or if you need some guidance on choosing the right point of view, this is a must-read! Along with The Emotion Thesaurus, it can give you all the tools you need to breathe life into your story.

Apart from the wealth of exercises at the end of each chapter, another added perk to this book is that each chapter contains special question boxes with writing-related topics, for example:

Question: Is a thesaurus useful in writing descriptions of people and places?
Answer: A thesaurus is either a great aid or a disastrous deceiver, depending on how you use it. [The author then goes on to give an explanation.]

I don’t know what I would have done without it! (And yes, I managed to salvage the pages I had glued together...)


  1. Very helpful info. Always interesting to get a fresh perspective and a few new tips. I might have to look into this book series.

    1. Thank you for commenting! Yes, this book really helped me out. There is so much information I keep having to go back to it to check the specifics.

  2. I'm currently reading this book. I like it so far.


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