I'm working on a story that can't be told by either of the characters it's about without releasing certain information too soon that would destroy the reader's enjoyment. So I had to come up with an observer... someone who is very much involved with the conflicts going on in the story... and distance myself from the characters my story is really about.
Has anyone else had this type of problem, and how did you handle it? I guess I should say that my story seems to be working out, but I'm just looking for some feedback to make sure I'm on the right track.
I've never had the problem, because I've usually been motivated by my MC. I'd caution against trying to be too cautious in revealing what is going on, as you may come across as withholding and that tends to be a turn-off to readers. In short, you may "destroy the reader's enjoyment" by your technique of trying to maintain it...
I know OSC narrated a book from a different viewpoint in Hart's Hope... you could read that to see how the master addressed this problem.
Otherwise, as long as you write well FROM THAT VIEWPOINT, I think it would work out, even if it isn't the MC. Imagine, to use a popular example, how Harry Potter may have turned out if it were written from one of the other students. Do you think you could pull it off?
What are your reasons for not wanting to write from the MC's viewpoints? You mentioned hesitation "releasing certain information too soon that would destroy the reader's enjoyment." Is that applicable for both characters? Reveals of information or plot twists are usually more effective when we know the stakes involved for the characters - if you don't want to include that for the "surprise" element, they may be ineffective.
THE GREAT GATSBY is another story told from an observer's POV.
Most of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS is told from the POV of the hobbits, who are certainly important, but not the usual "movers and shakers" of high fantasy stories, and who serve in many ways as the observers of the Great Things that are happening in their world.
I'd recommend that you do what you can to make the POV character interesting as well (strong motivation, affected by the events, etc), or the reader my not want to bother.
I ran into a similar problem with the story I'm currently working on. The character I intended as the protagonist does not change or evolve, which meant I had to introduce a separate POV character who could observe what happens and be changed by it. I've worked it out by putting my POV character in the thick of the action and making her a foil to the protagonist. Seems to be working so far. Of course, I'm not done writing the story yet, so I can't say how it will turn out.
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The story (movie) Lady Hawk was told from M Broderick's character POV as he watched the two primary characters deal with their troubles. He was active and vital to the story, but not the MC where the story was concerned. Which begs the question; was he actually the MC in disguise? The two main characters were seperated by a curse and Mouse (I think was his name) was their go between, message bearer, caretaker. If you haven't seen it, try it... I thought it was very good. Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer... had to look that spelling up, yep.
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Depends on what the reveals are going to be, but you don't HAVE to have a POV character at all. You can use cinemtic POV with a "notional" but non-existent observer, however then you can't get into anyone's head. Or you can do other omni-POV things but then if you avoid heads just to hide info it can look like withholding.
Effectively you are introducing your POV character as a form of narrator. They can (but do not have to) be involved with the story or they can be "telling" it in a number of other ways.
I recently used a unique pov system in one story. I had two povs, on opposite sides of the situation and they were both secondary but parallel characters.
In my one accepted story, I switched pov three times within three paragraphs because it did the best job of telling the story. It was also humorous story, but I got the effect I needed.
In other words, I say go ahead and play with pov in any way that gets your story across the way you want it. If it doesn't feel right while you're writing it then maybe it's not the best approach. But it doesn't hurt to try out a few pages from an experimental pov just to see how it works.
quote:the character I intended as the protagonist does not change or evolve, which meant I had to introduce a separate POV character who could observe what happens and be changed by it.
Jennifer, if character change is something you love and, therefore, wanted to put into you story, then I'm all for it. But if this is something you feel you needed to put in the story because somewhere out there is this cosmic standard that says the best stories are about characters who learn through experience, then I'd like to try to persuade you that isn't the case.
There are a ton of good and successful stories where the main characters don't budge an inch. Here are a couple:
- Lee Child's best-selling Jack Reacher series - Sue Grafton's best-selling Alphabet mysteries, O is for Outlaw, etc. - Bernard Cornwell's best-selling Richard Sharpe series
Each of the many novels in each of these series is loved by many readers, but there's no character change.
Again, if this is something YOU love, then you must write what you have passion for. But there is no principle of general story-telling that says character change is necessary for maximum reader enjoyment. Only that some readers love that effect some of the time.
Just something to consider
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 17, 2010).]
John, you're right. There are plenty of successful series out there in which there's little evolution on the part of the main character. I think that's because readers of those series expect essentially the same protagonist from book to book. They're putting out their bucks to see Stephanie Plum, for instance, act like a kook and flirt with Joe Morelli and somehow catch the bad guy in the end. As you can see, I've read a few Janet Evanovich books, but I also gave up on the series around number four or five. That's because, for me, Stephanie's lack of emotional growth became boring. Characters who don't learn and change are not my thing.
Also, IMO, a short story is a different art form from a series of novels. In a short story, at least one character needs to be transformed (at least in a small way) by the events of the story. If that doesn't happen, I don't think the writer has done his/her job.
I'm with Jennifer. Characters who don't change are commonly used in serial fiction, but serial fiction is rare in short stories (and fairly rare in SF/fantasy, traditionally, though the kind of crossover into mystery/crime that urban fantasy has achieved does mean it's now much more acceptable).
Short stories are generally about a "moment of change" - it's been said by more than one person that a short story should reflect the most important moment/event in a character's life (that character may not be the narrator, may not even be the protagonist in some cases).
I understand about how withholding information can irk readers. I don't like it either when reading a story, but this is not the case. What happens affects the entire village where the story takes place and cannot be revealed until the story's end. Otherwise, I would have no story.
In a nutshell the antagonist wants to be rid of the protagonist and succeeds, but the protagonist wins out in the end through an ingenious plan. It's somewhat similar to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" when everything ties together and is not revealed until the end. I needed someone experiencing what is happening without being in on the plot.
Believe it or not, Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories can readily to mind as a prime example of how I'm handling this story. I needed a "Watson" to observe and experience what happens.
I thought about doing cinamatic POV too, but I write much better from inside the head of the POV in third person. Another reason to go with a "Watson" type observer POV.
So far, what I have is working. I was just wondering how anyone else may have used this technique to an advantage.
Thanks everyone for the suggestions and advice. Hatrack rocks!
I agree with johnbrown about the "character change" thing. Regardless of medium or length I think the idea that the story must include or even be about a character who someone learns something or changes in some big way is a hampering one. If nothing else, what if it isnt a character story at all? Idea, setting and event stories obviously don't need this element...however obviously if as in Jennifers case character change is something you love and is essential to you to enjoy a story, then obviously you need to include it. But for me, as a reader (and I primarily read short stories) its not something I usually even think about.
As for the POV thing, Crystal, I say go for it and don't worry. As genevive said, whatever tells your story best is what you should do. Some readers may dislike your technique, but any technique you use is going to be disliked by some readers so follow what feels best to you.
Ohh totally off topic but I also agree that Ladyhawke is awesome. I love Rutger Hauer in just about anything, but its just a plain awesome movie and is very much a story where we're mostly getting things from the POV of somebody sucked into someone elses story.
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"If nothing else, what if it isnt a character story at all? Idea, setting and event stories obviously don't need this element..."
Really? It's a rare story indeed that has NO characters, and I'd venture it's still comparatively uncommon to come across a story where there is no change; that change usually affects a character in the story, even if (as I said above) it isn't the protagonist OR the narrator.
Even my Yi Qin stories - which are serial fiction and which don't generally "change" the main character; broadly I would class them as "event" stories by the MICE approach - still tend to revolve around resolutions in which someone is forced to a point of change - whether that be accepting something they previously rejected, rejecting something they previously accepted, or confronting something they previously refused to.
I think the more you touch on all four aspects of MICE, the deeper and richer your story will be, although length is an issue and in flash fiction I wouldn't expect four deep story aspects - indeed I'd be as impressed as hell if someone managed it.
quote:In a short story, at least one character needs to be transformed (at least in a small way) by the events of the story. If that doesn't happen, I don't think the writer has done his/her job.
I'd like to push back on this. You talk about a charcter "needing" to be transformed in short stories. But what is it that requires this?
I can name three short stories off the top of my head where the character doesn't really change or experience any transformation in beliefs or values: ON FOR THE LONG HAUL by TC Boyle, TO BUILD A FIRE by Jack London, and UNTIL GWEN by Dennis Lehane. All by long-time pro authors and enjoyed by many.
Now, maybe I'm remembering those incorrectly, but I don't think so. Here are two more: ACCOUNTING FOR DRAGONS and LIKE DIAMOND TEARS FROM EMERALD EYES by Eric James Stone published in IGMS. Nobody really changed in those. The one was a joke story. The other was powerful (at least, for me). But it was the emotional arc I went through as a reader. That's where the change came in. Not in the characters learning to behave differently or value something new. In fact, Mary Robinette Kowal's CLOCKWORK CHICKADEE shows no change (I think that's the title of it). Just a mean toy thrashing another. The joy of that story was the world and seeing this evil chickadee.
Maybe if I go back and read them again, I might spot something. But those stories weren't about people changing.
I also don't think the argument that a series prevents change works because each book has to stand on its own. And if this were critical to enjoyment, then the series would quickly fail. But they don't. Maybe with readers who DO like change. But there are tons of readers who don't care about it. And there are series where the characters do slowly change. Besides, there are stand-alone novels where people don't really change. I'm thinking of ANCIENT SHORES by Jack McDevitt. The protagonists didn't really change. It was the changing emotional arc of the reader that provided the change.
So there seem to be a lot of examples that run counter to the notion that stand-alones and shorts need to have characters that change. Or that those which do feature something of that sort are better.
So I think the reader needs to be taken on an emotional arc of some kind. But I can't see that character transformation is always necessary to do that. Or maybe you're defining "transform" very broadly. I think it's true that every character will change if they do nothing else but learn something they didn't know before (who the villain was, how to stop the meteor from hitting, etc.) But I don't know if such a broad definition is useful. Then every story would feature this by default. Or maybe you're talking about transformation in a way I'm not addressing.
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 20, 2010).]
Change doesn't have to be related to beliefs or values. In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the man undergoes one of the biggest transformations possible: He dies. And before he does, he comes to understand that cold is not just cold, as he thought before, and that the "old-timer of Sulphur Creek" was right.
Most of your other examples I haven't read. "Until Gwen" isn't available to read online, but I did find an interview with Dennis Lehane, and the interviewer, in her introduction, writes:
"This lifestyle has left the narrator without a sense of identity. He doesn't know where he's from and his father won't tell. He's never held a job. He doesn't have a birth certificate. He doesn't really know who he is. Until Gwen — a young woman who loved him so much she was even willing to help him commit his crimes."
Sounds like at least one person thinks the narrator undergoes a transformation. But again, I haven't read the story and so can't make my own determination.
There are exceptions to every rule, and you hit on one. I just reread "Clockwork Chickadee" and can't for the life of me find a way in which the chickadee changes. The sparrow obviously does, but the sparrow isn't the protagonist. I'm sure there are plenty of other exceptions that you or anyone else on this board could point out.
That being said, I think the exceptions are rare when looking at the vast number of short stories out there. Pick up any magazine or anthology, and in the majority of stories, there will be a character transformation. Maybe he (or she) does something that he wouldn't have before, or he has a changed outlook on the world, or discovers something new about himself, or undergoes physical alteration or some change I'm not thinking of here. "Transformation" is, as you suggested, a broad term. And the change doesn't have to be huge. In the "Great Gatsby," for example, the narrator simply decides to go home.
I'm with Rich. I went back and reread UNTIL GWEN. The reviewer doesn't capture the story. It's about a guy's criminal dad coming to get his son out of prison and the son learning dear old dad killed Gwen, the love of his life, about 3 years back, and the son killing his dad. There's no change in the son's or dad's characters. And Gwen was history. "Until Gwen" refers to the fact that until he met Gwen he was lost, i.e. she was the love of his life and his dad killed her. And this is a story about revenge or justice, however you look at it.
But you're right with TO BUILD A FIRE. I went back and gave it a good look. It's about a guy who rejects the counsel of the old-timers and pays the price, and at the very end confesses they were right.
However, the other stories show no such character change. And neither do the novels mentioned above. You say they're anomalies, but I don't know that they're that rare. More importantly, the fact that they exist demonstrates you don't need character change. It's simply an option.
Of course, I think we might be talking about two slightly different things. To me character change is about the change in the character—i.e. qualities or traits--of the person. Which is the same as belief and value. So in TO BUILD A FIRE this change is when he confesses he was wrong. His death is a separate thing. In fact, the story could have been written with him not confessing the old guy was right and dying all the same, and then we'd have a story of stubborn and foolish pride.
This change in the person's traits is what I think many of us consider a character change story. You come to love someone you hated, you forgive yourself for a past sin, you overcome your alcoholism once and for all, you stop being a mouse and stand up for yourself, you finally commit to the girl (or boy) in love—you change your character.
Your definition, on the other hand, seems to be focusing on the events of the story having some consequence to main character. Is that accurate? If so, then I'd be very hard put to find any story that doesn't do this, although I'm sure there are some out there. Even CLOCKWORK CHICKADEE does change the chickadee's situation, and therefore has a consequence, even though the chickadee itself is the same evil bird at the end that it was at the beginning.
But I wasn't responding to idea of consequence. I was responding to the idea of a change in a person's character. And a lot of stories don't need that to be successful.
The reason I think this is true, is because most commercial stories are about a character facing a problem that is a danger, lack, opportunity, or mystery. The reader finds satisfaction in the suspense and curiosity created by the problem, complicated, and then resolved. With some problems, the resolution requires a change in a character's traits. But in others it doesn't.
Furthermore, stories provide more effects to readers than suspense and curiosity. There's humor and wonder and wish-fulfillment and insight and probably a number of others. So a story might deliver a huge dose of suspense, wonder, and humor and the audience is just fine, even if it doesn't show a character learning by experience. I think about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and I don't see that the character (qualities and traits) of Indiana Jones changed at all. The entertainment value of that story lay in other things.
So I think we as writers can blind ourselves to all sorts of wonderful story possibilities if we buy into the idea that every story must include character change to delight and satisfy readers.
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 21, 2010).]
Character change isn't really the important thing in a short story. I have heard though that in every short story the character must make a choice (if you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice).
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If you look at OSC's story categories, only one of them really involves change in a character, and those are character stories (paraphrase of his definition: a character aspires to a role change and the story is about the character's failure or success in achieving that role change). (I submit that character stories can also be about characters who are thrust into a role change and how they succeed or fail in dealing with that change and/or escaping it.)
Milieu stories don't require character change (though if the character "goes native" that is definitely a change), nor do idea stories (unless you count the resolving of the idea), and event stories can go either way (though mostly the status quo is what changes there).
Wow! Talk about highjacking a thread. I do believe you folks take the prize.LOL Don't get me wrong. It's a good discussion with lots of good info but just not about my original question... which you folks answered in fine style.
I don't mind if you continue this discussion, but there may be some folks that will read the subject line and never realize what's being discussed .
quote:Really? It's a rare story indeed that has NO characters, and I'd venture it's still comparatively uncommon to come across a story where there is no change; that change usually affects a character in the story, even if (as I said above) it isn't the protagonist OR the narrator.
I was refering specifically to "character change." Idea, event, setting stories definitely, to my mind at least, don't require any character in them to experience change, because they arent necessarily really about the character.
Of course I also reject the notion that "good" stories catagorically "require" anything, in a broad sense because whats good and not is different for each person.
I realize however that some people's personal tastes have such requirements, although it is hard for me to understand or relate to those who require a single specific element, such as "character change" in order to enjoy any story. My only requirement for enjoying a story is that...I enjoy it. Which can be achieved in many, many ways.