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BOOK REVIEW: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction)Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is about how to write characters with sufficient depth that readers will follow them through to the end of a story. As the title suggests, there are three major components to the book: character building, emotional considerations, and point of view. A story requires a character who needs or wants something and faces barriers to that goal. The character has to be someone who the reader is interested in seeing through a process that involves inching toward a goal while being repeatedly beaten back. This doesn’t mean the character has to be likable, but if the character is unrealistic and uninteresting readers won’t get far. (In other words, they don’t have to like the character, but they do have to feel some sort of way about them.) Facing barriers to one’s goals creates emotional states that must feel authentic. If a character doesn’t respond emotionally to events, then the story is likely to feel flat (unless one has built a hilarious Sheldon Cooper-like character on purpose.) The perspective from which the reader learns of events is critical because it determines what information the reader is privy to, and—in particular—information about thoughts and emotions that are sometimes falsely portrayed.

Of the sixteen chapters that comprise the book, the first seven explore character development. Chapter 1 describes character in terms of general types. The book goes on to discuss the importance of how one introduces key characters. The next three chapters drill down into the challenge of building an authentic character: 1.) What is the character like deep down? 2.) Are the motives of the character clear-cut or complex? 3.) How can one show that the character has changed over the course of the story, and, if they don’t change, will the reader be satisfied? Chapters 6 and 7 investigate specialized types of characters (i.e. genre characters such as in romance, mystery, thriller, or sci-fi [Ch. 6] and in humor [Ch.7.])

Chapters 8 through 11 examine emotion and how it’s conveyed to the reader. The means by which writers communicate emotion include: dialogue (Ch. 8), metaphor, symbolism, and sensory experience (Ch.9.) Chapter 10 delves into special cases that are common in fiction but which require unique consideration (love, fighting, and dying.) Frustration has its own chapter (Ch.11,) and that may seem odd, but one must remember that a story is one barrier after another being erected in the way of the character’s pursuit of his or her objective.

The next four chapters present information to help the writer evaluate different approaches to viewpoint. Not only are there various pros, cons, and considerations one must take into account when deciding upon viewpoint, each approach has a several variations. The first of these chapters (Ch. 12) outlines the broad-based considerations. The next three chapters deal with first person (Ch. 13), third person (Ch. 14), and omniscient points of view (Ch. 15,) respectively. (The rarely used 2nd person point of view is also discussed briefly, but largely as a warning.) The last chapter explores how to make it all work by way of what Kress calls the “fourth persona.” Early in the book, one is told that the writer must simultaneously embody three personas (i.e. the writer, the character, and the reader.) Kress’s “fourth persona” is that of the critic, and it becomes necessary once one has drafted a story and character.

The book has a few extras. At the end of each chapters there are several (usually 4 to 6) exercises to help writers understand the concepts through practice. The chapters each have summaries, and at the end of the book there’s a summary in the form of a checklist. That is about it for ancillary features. There are a couple of graphics in the form of pictures of a “mini-bio” and an “emotional mini-bio.” These are single page fill-in-the blank summaries that help one build a character that has depth and an authentic feel.

I found this book to be interesting and educational. The writer uses examples from a number of popular commercial and literary fiction authors. There’s no real need to be familiar with any particular author, but being familiar with them might present one with additional insights. The book is readable.

I would recommend this book for writers of fiction.

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