The Value of Writing Fan Fiction

The subject of fan fiction can be a controversial one, so I may be making some people mad when I say that fan fiction is valuable and important.

First of all, to clarify for those who might not know, fan fiction is just what it sounds like: stories written by fans of a particular book/TV show/movie. Fanfic stories can range from plots that easily could have fit into the official story, to endings or explanations for unfinished storylines, to alternate universe adventures and wild what-if tales.

Fanfic is written for the fans, by the fans, and is generally not authorized by the original authors or creators of the book series/show/movie. There’s nothing illegal about fan fiction, unless you try to make money off of it or claim it as your own property. Then you get into plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, and related cans of worms.

This post is not about the legal or even moral implications of the fan fiction world, but rather its value as writing and art. All nerdiness and fangirling aside, writing fan fiction has several benefits: Continue reading

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Nitty-Gritty of Writing – POV

POV – Point of View – is a vital element of narrative fiction. The point of view character is the one who is telling the story. There are three basic points of view for narration – first person, second person, and third person. Each one has different pros and cons, and different degrees. For example, in third person (where he or she is telling the story), there can be a single narrator or multiple characters serving as narrators. The point of view can also be very surface-level, as if you were watching a movie, or much deeper and more similar to first person narration (where I tells the story).

What I’m going to cover, however, is a lot more basic, and is something that I often see new writers struggle with. Even more experienced writers might struggle with POV a bit during their first draft, as they’re figuring out what sort of narration they want for the story. Continue reading

Unusual Narrators

I am not an expert on all the ins and outs of the narrator or narrative voice in fiction. Most of my stories wind up being in the third person, and often from multiple characters’ points of view. Before you jump all over me for that, let it be known that a) I never head-hop within a scene, and b) I’m currently writing an epic fantasy trilogy, and it just wouldn’t work if I had only one P.O.V. character.

Anyway, despite the fact that I have experimented very little with my narrators, I’m fascinated by the concept of the role of the narrator. I’ve decided to make this blog post a brief study of several unusual narrators that I’ve come across (in both books and movies).

The role of the narrator is first and foremost that of storyteller. Whether it’s omniscient third person point of view or an individual character who says “let me tell you my tale,” we learn the story from a narrator. Since I like the telling of stories, I’m always fascinated when I encounter an unusual storyteller.

Unusual Narrators in Movies

Okay, so both of these that I’m going to talk about are technically stage productions, but I’ve only seen the movie versions. The story and the characters would be the same, though. The musicals Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat feature very unusual narrators to tell the story. The narrator Ché in Evita and the unnamed Narrator in Joseph both actively participate in the story, even though they are not characters within it. This is a technique that seems like it would be more effective in a show or movie rather than a book.

Ché and Joseph’s Narrator set up the story, introduce the characters, and then take the audience on the journey of the story. Both of these narrators are in just about every scene and every song, but not just as a distant storyteller – they interact with the scene and the characters within it. The characters in both of these stories are unaware that the narrator is a being that exists outside of their world.

For example, in Evita, Eva has several duets with Ché, but she does not recognize him from scene to scene. Ché is simply there to represent the everyman (or sometimes her conscience). Similarly, in Joseph, the characters always greet the Narrator with exuberance and welcome her into the scene, but treat her as a passing fancy. Only at the end, when Joseph and the Narrator sing the final duet, does Joseph seem to become aware that the Narrator has been there all along, telling his story and giving him life. These two stories would actually make a great character study, as well, because of this unique interaction with the narrators, but I won’t go into that right now.

Unusual Narrators in Books

The two books I’ve decided to discuss are Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. (Incidentally, I mentioned the narrator of Rebecca in another post I wrote some time back, in which I outline first, second, and third person points of view.)

Both of these books are written in the first person, which at first blush seems like the most limiting of all narrative styles, because the reader can never know anything beyond what the narrator knows. This is definitely the case in Rebecca, where the narrator’s ignorance and conjecture is basically what drives the plot.

The Historian features a very different sort of narrator, because there are technically several narrators. The main narrator (unnamed) is telling the story of her hunt for her father. She follows the trail left by her father based on the letters he’s written to her; these letters are first person, narrated by her father, and his narration (this narrator’s name is Paul) actually takes up the bulk of the book. Paul (via his first person letters) also followed a trail left his by his professor, so portions of the book are told in the first person by the narrator Professor Rossi. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, and this technique enables the reader to experience multiple points of view (and even multiple time periods) while always staying in the first person. I found it occasionally confusing, though, as there were no markers to indicate when we were switching narrators (or time periods). Since everything was told by “I,” the reader has to rely only on the setting, and an acute awareness for each of the narrator’s voices, to determine who was telling the story at any point in time.

What’s also interesting about both of these stories is that the narrators are not actually the main characters. In Rebecca, we are in the unnamed narrator’s head the entire time and we get to know her intimately, but Max de Winter and even Rebecca herself are the major players in the story. In The Historian, the unnamed primary narrator quickly fades into secondary importance as we follow her father Paul as the narrator. At times reading this book, it was easy to forget that the “main” plot of the story was supposed to take place in the 1970s, because the majority of the story was told via Paul’s letters from the 1950s.

Other Unusual Narrators?

So now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever read (or watched, or written) a story with an unusual narrator or narrative style? There are other stories I could have discussed here, but I’d love to hear some more examples from you!

And also, for your viewing pleasure, here is the Narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat setting up the story and introducing the main character:

Characters are real people, too – part 2

A while ago, I did a post with tips on writing well-rounded characters. I decided to follow that up with another post, featuring three more tips on how to flesh out your characters and make them just like real people. We are all more than the sum of our parts, and your characters should be, too.

1. What’s the motivation?

There’s always a why behind the what. Nobody does anything for just “no reason,” even if it seems like it at the time. Even something as innocuous as stopping for ice cream on the way home from work just on a whim has a motivation—you wanted ice cream more than you wanted to get home in a hurry.

Where the plot of a story is concerned, character motivation is a very important feature. Actually, I could devote an entire blog post to this (and many talented writers have already done so). But in short, your characters, major and minor, have a reason for doing what they do. The decisions that characters make is the main thing that drives the plot.

For an example, I’ll use Dumbledore and Snape from the Harry Potter series. (I must insert a quick confession: I’ve actually read only the first three books. But assuming that the movies were at least slightly accurate to the books, I feel comfortable in using these characters for this particular point).

Both Dumbledore and Snape spend the series protecting Harry. They go about in radically different ways, and that stems primarily from their motivation. The end goal for both men is the same: protect Harry. The reason? So that he can defeat Voldemort. But each man has a very different personal motivation for devoting the rest of his life to protect the boy who lived. Just in case you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I won’t give away all the details; but it’s apparent right from the beginning that Dumbledore and Snape have very different motivations for everything that they do.

2. Challenges and struggles hit everyone

This can be related to motivation, because the way that character responds to challenges and struggles is what makes a plot. A story with characters who never go through troubles, never get stretched or challenged, and make no decisions because they have no motivation, is not a story at all.

There are basically two types of challenges (in stories and in real life): self-imposed struggles, and externally-imposed struggles. A story about a man who loses his wife could be told in many ways: did he lose his wife because of his stupid financial decisions and his refusal to curb his temper (self-imposed struggle), or because his wife was killed in a plane crash (externally-imposed struggle)?

In the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, the characters all become involved in the plot in different ways. Lee Scoresby finds himself involved in a multi-world war (the struggle) simply by doing a quick helpful deed for a strange little girl (his motivation—kindness and a desire to help out someone in a rough spot).

The character of Will Parry becomes involved in the war (the struggle) because he is on a quest to find his father and will stop at nothing to get answers (his motivation). Because the motivations of these characters is different, they respond to the various challenges and struggles in different ways. They also are faced with their own set of individual struggles (some self-imposed, especially on the part of Will), apart from the war that is the overall plot of the series.

3. Whose head are we in, anyway?

This is sort of a point of view tip (which I blogged about here). But as it relates to characters, the point of view or perspective can be used as a tool for the development of characters. If a story is being told in first person (narrated by I) or limited third person (he or she) then the reader can learn about the character’s quirks, faults, motivations, and decisions through interior monologue as well as external actions.

Characters who are not narrators of the story can only be developed through their actions and dialogue, as presented by the narrating characters. This doesn’t mean that non-point of view characters are flat or lacking some way—it just means that the author must chose a different way to develop the character.

I could use most any story for this example, but I’m going to use Ruse, a short-lived comic book series that probably few people have heard of or read. It was a Sherlock Holmes-esque sleuthing story, set in a steampunk Victorian world. The two main characters are Simon—the detective, and Emma—his assistant and the narrator of the story.

Even though the story is told from Emma’s point of view, complete with her inner musings about Simon, the two characters develop equally well throughout the series. Simon is a well-rounded character because of all of the points that I’ve covered in both of these posts—his quirks, his strengths and weaknesses, his motivations, his response to struggles. Emma’s thoughts about Simon contribute to this, because she is constantly second-guessing him and wondering about his actions.

As a narrator, Emma shares her thoughts with the reader—but not every thought. She has secrets of her own, which Simon often figures out just as fast as the reader does. Simon has secrets too, and towards the end of the series, the reader feels that they know Simon perhaps better than Emma does—specifically because of her inaccurate interpretations of his actions and motivations.

Emma’s quirks, weaknesses, and motivations are revealed as she reluctantly divulges bits and parts of her secrets to Simon (and the reader). Simon’s quirks, weakness, and motivations are revealed as Emma interprets them through her own personal filter. The writer(s) of this series used this limited point of view narration to develop two very strong characters in two very different ways.

Please share your thoughts! Any other tips or ideas about developing three-dimensional characters?

It’s all in your point of view…

I believe that point of view (POV) can make or break a story. Well, maybe not break it, necessarily, but a different point of view can radically change a story.

A couple of other writers have blogged recently about POV, so I must do them credit by providing links to their posts. One of my favorite bloggers Ava Jae posted an insightful blog about POV, and editor Beth Hill wrote an exhaustive and very educational three-part post about point of view and character perspective.

To begin with, POV is one of three things: first person, second person, or third person. Each one has their pros and cons.

First person: I tells the story. The reader can immediately get into the main character’s head—the reader sees, hears, and feels everything that the character does.

For an example, I’ll use Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca. The story begins with an intense first line that puts the reader right away into the mind of the unnamed narrator:

          Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

A disadvantage (or perhaps advantage, depending on how you use it) is that first person POV can be limiting. If important events occur that the narrator does not witness, the information must be revealed in some other way or at some other point in the story.

As I said, this could be either good or not so good. In the case of Rebecca, for those of you who’ve read it, just think how different the story would have been if Max de Winter had been the one telling the story. Without giving away everything to people who haven’t read it, let’s just say that there would have been a whole lot less suspense and intrigue if the reader knew everything that Max de Winter knew.

I wrote a sci-fi story a few years ago (it’s been temporarily shelved, but I haven’t given up on it) that was written in the first person from the perspective of an alien. The plot involved the alien on her way to visit Earth for the first time, and her first encounter with a human.

I enjoyed being able to create and tell about the alien culture basically from the inside out. The interesting challenge to this, however, was describing humans and their culture from the point of view of someone who didn’t know what hair or tear ducts were, had never seen a yellow sun in the sky, and didn’t even have the words to describe the food that humans ate.

Second person: You tells the story. This POV is almost never used, and is rather awkward. Really the only example (good or bad) that I can think of that’s written in second person are the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Anybody remember reading those as a kid? Those were cool because you were actually in the story. But as for reading, say, an actual novel, you as the narrator makes for a difficult read.

Third person: He or she (or it or they) tells the story. This POV form has the most options, which, like most anything, could be either good or bad.

The story can be told from the perspective of just one character, making it similar to first person in that the reader has a limited view of the story but very intimate knowledge of the character, their thoughts and feelings, everything that they do and why.

Multiple characters can tell the story, giving the reader not only knowledge of simultaneous events, but sometimes different perspectives on the same event or character. This format works best, in my opinion, for long complicated stories like epic fantasy (and other genres too, of course) that involve a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads.

The book I’m working on falls into this category. While I have two characters who would be the absolute main main characters, I have a cast of five characters who share the job of telling the story.

I keep the scenes separate as far as character perspective goes, however. I don’t know if this is what might be called a “rule” of narration and POV, but keeping the narrating characters separate within a scene is usually advisable. The best multiple-perspective third person POV stories I’ve read have separate scenes, or even separate chapters, for each character’s viewpoint. Switching mid-scene (or worse, mid-paragraph) from one character’s head to another can often be jarring or confusing for the reader.

For an example of third person, I’ll use an excerpt of a scene from my current book. This scenes that involves two of my main characters (Mađen and Teija), but it’s told from the perspective of Mađen.

          The sun was rising as they neared Sodankylä. Mađen paused at the top of a hill for a moment to admire the view. The snow was just mere flurries now and the clouds were thin, and a red-gold glow was blazing on the horizon. Wild sweeping hills stretched in every direction, dotted with little pockets of trees and rapidly freezing lakes. Towers of rock, softened only slightly by the fresh dusting of snow, rose up from the tundra. Everything glowed a muted orange in the veiled sunrise.

          “It’s beautiful,” Teija said.

          “Sápmi. It’s always been the most beautiful thing to me.”

          “Sápmi?”

         “The land of the Sami children. You call it Lapland, or sometimes Samiland. But our ancestors called it home.”

         Home—a land of ice and reindeer, rich traditions and dying languages. And because of his stupidity, he’d almost let that life slide through his fingers and be lost to him—again. He belonged in the north with his reindeer and his family. Ávgos and their animals would be brought back safely, if it was the last thing he did. He gunned the engine and sped down the hill.

          He stopped briefly in Sodankylä for food and fuel. Teija was uncomplaining, though she did purchase a thicker scarf before they left the village. Mađen saw no evidence of pursuit of any sort, either in Sodankylä village or out on the tundra. During another pause in the late afternoon to stretch and relieve themselves, Mađen noticed Teija examining her phone.

          “You’re not calling anyone, are you?” he asked.

          She looked up at him. “How could I? There’s zero signal out here. My mom called me earlier and my friend texted me, but I can’t reply to either one.”

         “Are you planning to tell them where you are?”

         “Johanna knows where I am—basically. Well, she knows I’ve gone to Lapland. Why? You seem really concerned about me communicating with anyone.”

         Mađen pursed his lips and tried to think of a good way to answer that. “I just don’t want anyone to think I’ve kidnapped you.”

Along similar lines in the third person POV is the omniscient narrator, which is basically just the author telling the story. Scenes and characters are all treated equally, and if the thoughts of any characters are discussed, the reader is informed of them by the author rather than having the characters themselves share.

A good example of this is in Beatrix Potter’s stories; the author is the narrator, and in The Tailor of Gloucester, for example, this omniscient narrator tells us what is going on with the characters of the tailor, Simpkin the cat, and the mice. These stories are of course children’s books, and this omniscient narrator form is more common in children’s stories (it was also the most common POV form used about 100 years ago, when Beatrix Potter began writing).

It’s rare, though not impossible, of course, for a story to mix POV forms. One book that accomplishes this mixing quite well is The Dreaming: Walks through Mist by Kim Murphy. There are three main characters who tell the story—two of them tell it in third person, and one in first person. Each POV and perspective is given its own chapter, with a heading featuring the name of the character. This is a great way to prepare the reader for not only the change in perspective, as the third person narration switches between Shae and Lee, but also for the dramatic shift when the first person I narrator Phoebe tells her part of the story.

Regardless of the point of view, or the viewpoint character(s) used, the reader can only know what the author chooses to tell. That’s why I mentioned at the beginning that POV and character perspective can radically alter a story.

For writers out there, do you have a favorite POV that you write in, or do you let the story and characters determine the narrative perspective? For readers, who do you like to have telling the story: first or third person, omniscient narrator or just one or two characters? Please share your thoughts!