Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Matter of Perspective: Managing Emotional Points of View

My recent essays about my writing method* have looked at the process from 30,000 feet, and dealt with broad construction of the narrative. I'd like to switch gears for a moment and talk about going waist deep into the writing of each beat in a chapter from the perspective of the characters in the story.

Sources of Technique
As always, my method is not original, but it is adapted to my temperament. The ideas I present here have mostly been molded from Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and of course, Story

In the Driver's Seat
I try to write in a manner that places the reader in the position of a character. Instead of acting as an omniscient narrator, I try to cut out the middleman to create a more visceral response.  The best way I've found so far to do this is to follow six steps while developing each chapter:
  1. Decide at the beginning of the chapter whose perspective currently drives the story. Normally it’s the protagonist, but an antagonist or supporting character can drive a chapter if it is part of a subplot.
  2. Determine their emotional state, based on their circumstances. Then decide what they are feeling inside, what they are projecting into the world, what they attempt to hide and what they attempt to project. 
  3. Determine the outside actions or situations that influence the protagonist and what reactions they get when they interact with the world.
  4. Determine what the protagonist can perceive from others (and from themselves) and how they interpret those perceptions, including their biases, mistakes and things they can’t know.
  5. Find out what the protagonist does based on this situation.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 until the chapter is resolved

I’m currently working on A Taste of Honey, which will be my second novel. In one of the early chapters, the protagonist, Nikki, sits in a cafe waiting for her lover Manuel. She is grappling with several problems at once. First, this isn't a random affair. She wants to seduce Manuel in order to spy on his business. Second, he was impotent the night before when they first made love. Third, Manuel’s wife saw their infidelity. Finally, the wife didn't lash out at them. In fact, she didn't try to stop the sexual liaison at all. She simply watched. Based on this turn of events, Nikki juggles confusion, embarrassment, sexual frustration, lust, doubt and anxiety all at the same time.

The impact of all those emotions come into play when the wife, and not Manuel, sits down at the table for lunch. How is Nikki’s shock affected by her current state of mind? What does she feel? What shows on her face or in her body language? Can she control herself in that moment? What signals does she get from the woman across the table and how is her perception tainted by her own emotional state? How will all of this impact her reaction? Most importantly, what happens next?

The Balancing Act
The art of writing involves creating a narrative that a reader can follow intellectually and connect with emotionally. There are dozens of physical responses to each emotion.  There are infinite ways for a person to interpret or misinterpret what other people say or do. The trick is to discard everything that doesn't help tell a good story and keep everything that will let the reader feel themselves in your character’s lives. Put in too much and you get a hot mess. Include too little and you get a wooden cliché. Art sits on the razor's edge.

When Characters Write Story
As I write each chapter, Nikki dictates more and more of what happens. What she sees and what she believes impacts what she does, which in turn creates a reaction in the world that she has to deal with. And it's not only what's going on outside. In her own head and heart there is a natural struggle between what she thinks and what she feels, between what she tries to do and what she does. Writing through the filter of her emotional point of view not only puts the readers in her shoes, it gives me the ability to see the world through her eyes too. I find that this kind of writing is much more honest and natural than trying to write from the outside looking in.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense? Let me know your perspective.

Have fun.


  1. Once again, you've hit the nail on the head. As a reader, there is nothing that captures me more than to become emotionally charged by, or attached to the character.

    By writing from their perspective, by how they feel in a given situation, it draws the reader into that moment of pain, understanding, fear, love, excitement etc.

    As a writer I strive to create that emotional structure within my characters and allow, in essence, them to take the story where it needs to go in order to engage the reader.

    I like how you've plotted out the five steps (that make perfect sense by the way). I probably do this, but I'm not one to write down how to do it, I just do it. Now, with that being said, I will surely write these down and post them on my wall in my office. I would like to see if this helps me do it better or perhaps stay more focused. We'll see. ;)

    Thank you for another informative and useful essay.

  2. Yes, I agree with Pam's comments. A very clear and helpful post - and you approach the subject matter with a great perspective. By the way - everything you've said makes good sense!

    Just want to ask about the title of your book 'A Taste of Honey' as it's also the name of a very famous play by playwright, Shelagh Delaney, which was also made into a film.

  3. @ Pam: You're welcomed. I'm sure that you will take my five steps and create something even better. If you do, please share. ;-)

    @ Teagan: Thank you Ms. Kearney. A Taste of Honey is also the name of a signing group from the 1970's, and I'm sure that my book won't be the only one with that title. I used the name to refer to honey trap operations that spies use to gather information. I actually wrote another post about honey traps that you can read here if you're interested.

    Have a good weekend ladies.