Friday, August 26, 2016

Point-of-View Characters as Ambassadors to your World (Part 1)

Note: We'll meet to hold Part 2 of this topic on August 31st at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts. This session will be a special workshop session, with discussants asked to send me a paragraph or two of material representing a POV character they have chosen. Contact me to participate. At the time of this writing, we have five slots left open.

A character lives in your world. When you step into that character's head, you have the opportunity to discover not only who that person is, but how they have been shaped by their environment - physically, socially, culturally. In some sense, that makes the character a physical embodiment of the world, and they possess a psychological map of that world.

There are a lot of discussions occurring online at the moment which talk about how culture and identity mix - well, that applies to fictional characters as well. We don't want our characters to be generic. A strong POV also can take some of the burden off an author because they can help convey things about the world and reduce the need for setting description.

People are shaped by the world they grew up in, and carry their backstories with them. We want them to have specific backgrounds. Training, experience, reasons why they hold the beliefs they do.

Internalization is a really important tool. The language that you use to convey the character's point of view should be their language, or at least reflect their language in some way. One aspect of that is how they categorize reality. Who do they consider "us"? Who do they consider "them"?

I spoke about my Varin world, and how nobles think of themselves as "us," and everyone else as "Lowers." The lowest caste thinks of themselves as "us" and everyone else as "Highers." Depending on where you fall in the middle, you will have all three of those concepts. People in this environment have to be able to read others' marks and act accordingly, because there are different greetings and modes of address for Highers and Lowers depending on their caste identity (Varin has seven castes).

The way people refer to the undercaste, as "undercaste," "Akrabitti," or "trashers," depends on their own identity and on the surrounding context.

Only the nobles don't have to make any special linguistic accommodations, because they are uniquely blind to the operation of the system. They also don't know how to shop for their own food, because they are never required to do so. They don't use cash money, and have no concept of it.

All of these details express themselves in the point of view of a character.

Che mentioned how Key and Peele had a comedy sketch where Will and Jaden Smith went grocery shopping. Morgan talked about how she'd heard the expression "turn a tap and money comes out," which is a reflection of a particular point of view on money.

I brought up the idea of metaphors. Very often, we think of metaphors from an authorial point of view, in terms of bringing in color, flavor, "coolness," or any number of other elements. However, thinking of metaphor from the perspective of character point of view can be extremely valuable.

We discussed some linguistic aspects of metaphor, specifically target domain, and source domain. A metaphor essentially has as its goal describing a target that needs to be better understood or fleshed out. That's the target domain. In order to describe that target, it pulls elements from a source domain which is better understood by the speaker and hearer. Any time you're having a POV character use a metaphor, think about what is being described, and think about what that character knows well, the kinds of things they would use to flesh out their understanding of the target.

So when my alien character Rulii talks about his life in terms of hunting, "life" is the target domain, and "the hunt" is the source domain. He can pull from that source domain over and over to flesh out extended metaphors about his life, goals, and activities.

Che mentioned Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun as an example of good control of metaphor, because so many of the metaphors used are from sailing, and from the sea maiden religion.

Working in with a character from another language group or culture is a key example of when to employ this kind of thinking. People have different metaphorical resources. Characters are thus ambassadors for their fictional worlds, or can also share world concepts from the author's world.

Expectations are an important part of this. Because of geography and climate we develop expectations for our homes, our cars, our tools, our behaviors.

A world can be complex, but it is nonetheless understood by the point of view character. You don't need a million-world bible; you need a character with experience, expectations, and opinions. Think about opening your story by placing your character in a situation that will reveal aspects of the world.

Morgan mentioned a conversation between two of her characters where one doesn't understand why the other doesn't keep track of their extended family. We often know why we know things, but we don't have explanations for why we don't know things. Age can be a factor in what we know (or don't), because it means we witness history to differing degrees. The knowledge one person has from being told about something is different from the knowledge another person has from experiencing that thing.

Octavia Butler's Patternist series is a fascinating example of the use of different perspectives.

We also talked about multiple points of view. Different perspectives can give the reader a larger picture of the whole world than is possessed by any single character. It's also cool when you can use unreliable narrators.

You don't always need to use multiple points of view. I chose to use a single point of view in "Cold Words" because Rulii had the most at stake in the story. Similarly, in "The Liars," I used only one point of view, because including the other point of view would spoil the mystery inherent in the story. On the other hand, I used multiple points of view in "Let the Word Take Me" and "At Cross Purposes" because in those cases it added valuable things to the story.

When we got to the end of our hour, we decided we wanted to talk about the topic more! So we'll be meeting next week to get a bit more concrete and look at particular characters. I hope you can join us!