Screw Your Hero, What Does The Sidekick Think?

Screw Your Hero, What Does The Sidekick Think?

POV Part Two (read Part One here)

Just a few words to clarify the notion of psychic distance in fiction.  It’s been noted by readers of this essay’s first part that psychic distance can come into play when fashioning the relationship between characters, as it relates to selecting a POV.  Anomander Rake was elevated by pushing him as far away as possible, keeping him mysterious and remote, and by ensuring that the POV characters viewed him with fear, awe, or some other extreme emotion.  And this of course had the knock-on effect of elevating Rake’s general badassery.

But in a more fundamental sense, psychic distance is all about the author’s relationship with the characters, even those not employed as POV characters.  The best analogy to use to describe psychic distance is seeing how it’s manipulated in film and television, especially film, and that’s all down to camera angles.  And camera angles are a film-maker’s primary tool for manipulating the emotional and psychological state of the viewer.  Basically, a camera angle set at eye-level to a character invites empathy: invites the audience to identify with that character (or challenges the same, when that character’s despicable).  Eye-level shots are humanizing shots.  A camera angle that is perched above the subject, looking down on that person as it were, invites (depending on context) pity, sympathy, or contempt.  It in effect announces you as audience to be superior to the subject.  A camera position below or beneath a character, creating the effect of looking up at that character, serves to invite notions of the heroic, larger-than-life, prowess, leadership, iconic and even mythological status of that character.

Doe all that sound crass?  Well, it is.  But you don’t need to watch Triumph of the Will to see the propagandistic power of camera angles. Everyone uses it, from pickup truck commercials to superhero films, from fashion shoots to sports stars.  In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that we barely notice it, even as it seeks to manipulate us psychologically, often in disturbing ways (check out models in ads and gauge the implicit invitation based on camera angles, and you’ll see a lot of submission [camera angled down] shots – the babe on the divan – or heroic shots [the model wearing his fifteen grand leather jacket and sunglasses, etc]:  all there to subconsciously alter your thinking into believing what they’re selling, and just what are they selling anyway?).

Camera angles are there to tell you who to hate, who to identify with and who to worship.  And more often that not, each pitch is a lie, a swindle, an impossibility (no, you’re never going to join that model on the divan and even if you could, who’d want anyone that submissive anyway, unless of course you’re all phked up), or a false promise.  Well, that’s the cynical take.  Conversely, seeing eye to eye with a victim is pretty powerful stuff, precisely because it invites empathy and humanity.

These camera angles described above don’t even include the psychological effect of distance from subject (long shot, medium, close-up), but I don’t think I need to elaborate any more on the analogy than I already have.

How does all that relate to POV in fiction?  Because the author is a camera that feels.  How much and when it feels is up to the author, of course, but each time a decision is made, it has an effect on the writing.

I should probably hit that point again.  As author, what you feel, when you feel, and, ultimately, why you feel, has a direct effect on what you write.  POV involves you selecting where to put your camera.  Psychic distance is the track that camera’s on, and its elevation controls.  You can run it close, down from on high, up from below; you can pan in a long shot; you can even fade in and fade out.

But how and when to choose?  And what happens when that camera you’re working has gone wild, in out, up down, controls being cranked in a frenzy, all shoved this way and that in your desperate, sweaty hands?

One of the first things to break down with POV (when it breaks down) is often psychic distance, when the control of it is gone, or indeed, when the writer has little or no awareness of psychic distance at all.

Does psychic distance need to be consistent? Not at all.  In fact, it probably shouldn’t be.  There will be times in your story when you need to pull very close. Curiously, I’ve found in workshops I’ve run that those moments are often when the beginning writer does the very opposite: pulls back instead of closing in.  Why does that happen?  I’ll get to that in a bit.

Consider the following:

When he glanced over he saw Margo.  When he glanced over a second

time he saw the woman brushing her hair.  A third glance showed

Mrs MacComber fighting with her comb on a snag.  A fourth glance

and the figure had fallen to the ground in a wild tangle of hair.  A final

glance showed MacComber’s wife being dragged away by her hair.

The problem highlighted above is one of psychic distance, but specifically relative to the author’s emotional/psychological/authorial stance vis a vizMargo MacComber. The camera’s gone insane: it’s pulling in close (Margo, an intimate contraction of Margaret), pulling back (the woman, nameless), tracking left (Mrs MacComber, all formal but defined relative to a husband, aka a man), pulling way back (a figure, details unknown), and finally back in halfway and tracking right (MacComber’s wife: a possession).

Now, go online and pull up a copy of Hemingway’s The Short, Happy Life of Francis MacComber. Read the first five pages taking note on the naming convention for Mrs. MacComber.  Note how it slowly pulls us in, and in, to match the emotional lens under which she’s reaching a crisis.  The POV isn’t even from her: in fact, it actually jumps around a bit. But that psychic distance control, well, it’s breathtaking.

Dumb luck?  An accident?  An indifferent author?  Not a chance. That’s psychic distance in absolute, merciless control.  And with intent.  We come closer and closer leading up to the moment she’s about to cry.  Holy crap.  The genius of that still sends chills through me.

So yes, you can move the camera.  The key is to be aware that you’re doing it, and to then be aware that it has an effect on the reader – whether they’re aware of it or not – and then remind yourself that if it’s done badly, that too will have an effect on a reader (it will lose them).  Psychic distance is subtle and virtually beneath notice when it’s managed well.  It when it isn’t, it’s cringe-worthy.

Psychic distance is a primary control mechanism for POV.  It’s relevant not only between characters, but also between the author/narrator and her/his characters.  You can track in only to then track out (and this very relevant to Setting, as we’ll see, eventually), just do it in its proper increments (figure, woman, MacComber’s wife, Mrs. MacComber, Margaret, Margo) and do it to support the emotional context of the scene.

Specific character POVs also follow similar discipline. If you are going to have a character meet another character whom they don’t know, and through that 3rdPerson POV you use your character’s eyes to describe the person opposite, track the way a camera tracks: don’t go ‘Her left eye was red, her shoes leather, the car she leaned against was a ’71 Ford F-10 with stupid smoke-stacks jutting above the cab, her socks pink and bobbled, and she weighed nine hundred pounds, especially with the dead rhino draped across her shoulders.’  Instead, consider, the POV’s ‘eye’ as a tracking device, so that the details it picks up (which you use to describe the person) are sequential in a way that makes sense.  For example, if you want a male character to be crass and obnoxious, mentally undressing a female character he’s just met, then use his description of what he sees to track up, down, up, and maybe back down again.  In other words, if the first detail in the description is her footwear, go to shins/knees/legs next, and onward and upward. Okay, pretty gross example, but here’s the important thing: by fully exploiting the 3rdPerson Limited Omniscient POV the author can make that character a lascivious, uncouth, inconsiderate, rude, objectifying, sexist dickhead … without the author ever having to write:  ‘He was a lascivious, uncouth, inconsiderate, rude, objectifying, sexist dickhead.’

That’s how authorial stance can manipulate how a reader views a fictional character (not the one being described, but the one doing the describing, the eponymous POV character).

Now, imagine that creepy example above coming from a writer who isn’t aware his POV hero is giving her the visual once-over in a truly disgusting fashion?  That would be even creepier, wouldn’t it?  Point here is, this is why a writer needs to be fully aware of psychic distance and POV and the effects they will have on how readers relate to his or her characters.  Because an unaware or unmindful usage of psychic distance and POV is an open book on the author’s attitude towards his or her characters, story, and quite possibly the real world, too.

Now, what’s happening when beginning authors appear to be instinctively pulling back at certain points in a story (as it relates to POV and psychic distance)?  Are they random occurrences?  The authorial mind wandering?  My experience is no, neither random nor accidental distraction.  They seem to occur when the possibility of seriously raw emotions are about to take place – not a character’s emotions (not directly), but the author’s.  It’s as if that character’s story (and POV!) has dragged the author too close to something very personal, something that demands a certain ruthlessness to plunge into. Could be a place of emotional wounds, of old hurts, of deep traumas; or it could be a place where the character is facing a choice the author once faced, and suddenly both are tottering on the edge.

Whoah, that’s heavy, isn’t it?  Alternatively, the writer is instinctively sensing that the edge is now a tightrope, with the very real risk of a plunge into melodrama. Because an author slashed loose of all constraint by emotional vulnerability is most definitely not an author still in control.

Now, dare I even say this?  Sometimes losing control is a good thing.  Sure, it may result in a blubbering crash and burn on the keyboard, during which no words are being written (ha ha).  But sometimes those moments of midnight are just what we need.  Surprise, your POV character just dragged you here!  Yes, they will do that on occasion.  Isn’t writing fun?

The advice I give in workshops when I see that instinctive pulling back of psychic distance, is to have the author take note of it, ask all the brutal questions that pulling back implies, get mad (at oneself), turn around and wade right in with as much fearlessness and ruthlessness as possible.  Because, like Hemingway once said, sometimes you just gotta bleed.  In other words, writing is as much an inward journey as it is an outward one, and you risk the veracity of the latter if you retreat from the former.

Writing fiction is a great way to tear yourself down in order to build yourself back up, but doing that demands honesty and an almost idiotic courage to go for the throat (that throat being your own).  Is such a relentless approach applicable to all fiction?  I suspect that it might be.  I know that when I look at my own works that bend towards satire and the comedic, I am if anything more vicious there than anywhere else.  Laughter as defense mechanism.

But I digress, so here I’ll conclude this essay.

So… Exposition, Psychic Distance and Point Of View serving, you guessed it, Characterization. See how it’s all connected?  And as a writer, how can something like that not be mindblowing, exciting as hell? Read Short Happy Life  I know it’s long but it’s worth it.  Oh, and look for the one amazing, utterly fearless POV shift in that story.  I stole that one, you know.  Probably more than once.




One Response

  1. Andrea says:

    Hi Steven,
    possibly the most interesting article I read in a long time about PoV.
    First, pardon me for English mistakes: not my mother tongue.
    As it often happens, if you pay attention, the right hint comes to you in the right moment before you’re searching for it, maybe because your subconscious is already aware that you need it. So it happened to me with your article.
    I’ve started to re-read my first published work (a trilogy of Fantasy novels) in order to write them from scratch and being able to write the following 6 novels and so ending my “9 books saga”. It’s been published 15 years ago and it has an old, 3rd Omniscient PoV of the past century (really omniscient, no limits!). Approaching the project, the first clear thought I had was that the text must be “migrated” to a 3rd Person Limited Omniscient PoV, as in contemporary fiction (if I want someone to read it). So the second thought was just an obvious consequence: “Fine, this must be written from scratch, it’s a brand new work”.
    I have to say: that’s the strangest thing I ever tried to do with my writing. It involves so many changes and different approaches respect to my original writer intentions that I’m feeling almost overwhelmed by the task. (There are 83 primary characters in the trilogy. So, potentially 83 PoV… WTH!)
    With your digression on PoV and Psychic Distance you solved a bunch of the issues I was thinking about at once. So, first of all, thanks.
    At the beginning of my writing journey, without even know how to write correctly from a grammatical perspective, I was using Psychic Distance very well by instinct. And I did it well through time (the trilogy took me 9 years to be written: a normal amount of time, considering I didn’t know how to write, let’s not talk about how to tell!). But the final result, even if obsolete in its “taste”, was correct enough, in some way controlled. But now, as the task is challenging for the “me writer since 25 years”, it really feels like I have never written that story, even if I did (a strange, inner contrast that sometimes makes me feel as if I’m teared apart by alien forces).
    All this to ask you a question, hoping that an answer from you will help me to get rid of another bunch of questions and doubts about the “how-to re-writing it” topic. In the first part you said “mix it up a lot”, if you’re going to use many PoV. Can you clarify that to me, so… why? And in which way you’re generally managing to mix them up a lot? 🙂
    I know that you’re aware of the hidden questions in my two questions, because you surely already have to answer to those ones. So, as I sincerely considering you my favourite contemporary writer, the one that gave me the joy to read Fantasy fiction again (I was really bored and upset before picking up “Gardens of the Moon”, I have to say…), I’d like to hear some experience hint from you (even because the many PoV are one of the exciting aspects of your Malazan Book of the Fallen saga; so I consider you managed it very well). My first worry is: how not to lose equilibrium between the many PoV and so screw the reader’s reading experience? Some are not a problem, because the story of many of my characters is well defined and it’s clear when to use their PoV. But there are some primary characters whose presence is so important in the arc of the overall story that the choices are virtually infinite. And potentially story breaking: wrong choices can make crumble the whole castle down.

    Finally, I had the insane idea to leave some (very few) scenes with an 3rd Omniscent PoV (switching to a less complex one that I like to call “cinematographic PoV” – that means an external PoV who sees everything that can be seen, but that cannot know the characters thoughts and feelings, apart what’s seen from outside, with no other knowledge). How do you think that something like that fit in a story written mostly with the contemporary 3rd Person Limited Omniscent PoV? Better to avoid it? Or it’s worth a try? (I have already answered to that, otherwise I wouldn’t be here commenting it: I like challenges when writing! But I even like to challenge my choices, so I am asking.)

    That said, thank you for your brilliant fiction, by a conquered reader (already pre-ordered “Rejoice”, in fact) and kind regards,

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