Detecting a scene’s viewpoint character #writing

When I read a novel for my own pleasure, I read fast. I don’t stop to think ‘this is a new scene’ or ‘Buck is this new scene’s viewpoint character.’ I just inhale the story.

But sometimes a reader— especially if the reader is a would-be writer— needs to slow down and notice things. In a novel written in the Third-Person-Limited point of view, the story may jump around in different places with different characters present. Each scene should have a viewpoint character— this helps the reader feel anchored. But only if the writer has left easy clues as to which character is the viewpoint character.

  • The viewpoint character may be mentioned by name in the first sentence of the scene. In the book I am reading right now, ‘Armageddon’ by LaHaye and Jenkins, I checked several random scenes to find that the very first word in the scene is the viewpoint character’s name. The name should at least be mentioned before the end of the first paragraph.
  • The viewpoint character is the one we follow. Some scenes are in motion— characters don’t stay in the same room or same setting, perhaps because they are chasing a suspect or a clue. The viewpoint character will be moving along with other characters in motion.
  • We are often shown the viewpoint characters emotions and thoughts. We don’t know these things directly about the other characters in the scene.
  • Other characters in the scene become known to readers through the observations and interactions of the viewpoint character. These other characters are observed externally— we aren’t told their thoughts and feelings directly.
  • If the viewpoint character leaves the scene or dies, the scene ends.
  • Every scene in fiction has a purpose to the overall story. The viewpoint character usually has a stake in that purpose. At least the viewpoint character will have a goal for the scene.
  • If the viewpoint character is not the main character or an important character in the novel as a whole, there must be a reason why the author chooses to show this particular scene through this character.
  • Some novels stick mostly with the main character as a viewpoint character. Others have many different characters who serve as viewpoint characters in scenes. Novels with a lot of action in a variety of settings, like ‘A Pius Man’ by Declan Finn, often need to have many viewpoint characters.

Writers and would-be writers should be aware of the viewpoint characters in scenes, especially when reading fiction by skilled or popular authors. By learning how other authors handle this issue in scenes, you can improve how you do it yourself.

Exercise:

Find a book at random (by a skilled author) and pick three random scenes. For each scene, write down the answers to these questions.

  1. Who is the viewpoint character for this scene?
  2. How did the author establish that this was the viewpoint character for this scene? Was this done in the first sentence?
  3. What does the viewpoint character seem to want in this scene? Does he get it?
  4. Was this character a good choice for the viewpoint character in this scene? Why or why not?
  5. Is there an opposition character that is trying to prevent the viewpoint character from getting what he wants? If there is, imagine how the scene would be different from this opposition character’s point-of-view.

If you have any difficulties on the issue of viewpoint characters, do ask a question in a comment

#Purgatory : Second Chance at Heaven?

Some of my Protestant/Evangelical have the odd idea that the Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is a second chance at Heaven for people who failed to be ‘good enough’ for Heaven the first time around. Others, including nominal Christians (Christians-in-name-only) and secularists, adopt the idea of Purgatory as a path to Universalism, the idea that God is going to ‘save’ all people and eventually get them all to Heaven whether they want to go or not.

Universalism is a false belief within Christianity as we can see from the Great Commission in the Bible (Matthew 28:19.20):

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (KJV translation)

Now, why would Jesus give an urgent Great Commission if teaching and baptizing people made no difference, they would all go to Heaven in the end anyway?

This is what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Purgatory— it is for the Heaven-bound only! If you are ‘saved’, in friendship with God, regenerate, a real Christian when you die, you are eligible for Purgatory to get purified for Heaven. Jesus paid the ETERNAL price for our sins, so we don’t go to hell, but our souls may not be clean and pure enough for Heaven at the moment of our deaths.

This is why in the Catholic Church we call the people in Purgatory the ‘Holy Souls.’  They are Christian people who died with a little extra sin in their lives, who need to be prepared a bit before they are ready for the full glories of Heaven. It is not a second chance for damned souls.

C. S. Lewis, the beloved Christian author who was an Anglican, believed in something like Purgatory— we would be cleaned up and purified for Heaven. Most Protestants/Evangelicals do not. But all Christians believe in the Great Commission, or should— that we need to spread the Good News to everybody.

I feel it is a good idea for writers, particularly Christian writers, to have an accurate idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches if you are ever going to write Catholic characters that are believable to a Catholic audience. Don’t go to ex-Catholics who are now Evangelicals or extreme religious Liberals to find out what the Catholic Church teaches. Many of these people never did have a good religious education while they were Catholics.  There are good books that you can read that will help you understand Catholic beliefs and why Catholics think they are part of the Apostolic Tradition (the things Jesus taught the Apostles, that they passed on and often wrote down in the books that became the New Testament.)

If you are Catholic, you may be interested to know that the book cover that illustrates this post is of Thirty-Day Devotions for the Holy Souls by Susan Tassone, which is a nice devotional for those who are praying for the Holy Souls this November.

What is a Dystopia?

‘Dystopian’ is a popular subgenre these days particularly in older children’s fiction (YA/Young Adult.) But a lot of people don’t quite understand what the word ‘dystopian’ means— even people who are thinking of writing dystopian fiction!

‘Dystopia’ comes from the word ‘Utopia’— a word coined by Thomas More (1478-1535), and the title of a book of his. The book was a philosphical account of an imaginary kingdom and its ideal government. ‘Utopia’ means ‘Noplace.’ Thomas More may have been interested in government because his good friend Henry was a king of England. Unfortunately for More, it was Henry VIII, and when the king broke with the Church in order to get rid of his first wife, he insisted his subjects sign an oath which assented to Henry’s rejecting the Church. Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and could not do that, and so on July 6th, 1535, he was beheaded. It never would have happened that way in Utopia. Thomas More was canonized a saint and his feast day is July 9th. He is considered a martyr who died in defense of marriage and so is a saint for our own times.

‘Dystopia’ replaces the ‘U’ of ‘Utopia’ with a syllable which means ‘painful’, so instead of ‘noplace’ it means ‘painful place.’ A ‘dystopia’ is normally more painful for some people than for others. Think of the real-world examples of Stalinist Russia and National Socialist Germany. If you were a faithful member of the ruling party, even a lower ranking one, life might not be that bad at least as far as the government was concerned. But if you were part of a group the government targeted, life could be hellish.

In ‘The Hunger Games’ you can see how Panem was a ‘dystopia’ for Katniss. She lives in an impoverished district and has to break the law to keep her mother and sister fed. Both she and her sister are eligible to be selected for the Hunger Games, a fight to the death between 24 contestants. But for residents of the Capitol, like Caesar Flickerman, an entertainment celebrity, Panem isn’t a bad place. It’s a place where he can live in comfort and luxury.

In The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson, the Christian villagers from Glenrock are kidnapped by the infertile people of The Safe Lands so that the women can be made pregnant and have their babies taken away by the state. But the hedonistic young people that live in the Safe Lands have good lives— until they reach age forty and something that sounds like death is their fate. So The Safe Lands society is dystopian for the Glenrock villagers and for people approaching 40, but not so much for the younger people of the society.

When planning a dystopian story, you have to consider both who are victims of the dystopia and who are the people that benefit. There will likely be a third class of people who are at least getting by— the system is something they can live with and that is not targeting people like them.

Should every main character in a dystopian story be involved with overthrowing the government? It’s probably not such a good idea. The teenage kids who read a dystopian YA story will soon be in colleges where they will be taught that they must have an absolute meltdown when someone from the ‘wrong’ political party gets elected. We don’t want to encourage the idea that rioting in the streets is a good idea.

An alternative plot to the start-a-Civil-War approach is the escape story. The Dystopia is bad, but there is a place where the dystopian conditions don’t apply. Your character can be struggling to get to such a place.

Your character can also be involved in a non-violent underground or subculture, like the Christian subculture in the Communist countries both in the past and in China today. Such an underground may be aimed at allowing people to practice a forbidden faith or pass on a forbidden minority culture or language.

A final thought about dystopian fiction: the temptation may be to make the dystopian leaders similar to the leaders of your least favorite political party or faction and the heroes of your own political party or faction. This is not a good idea. Ideally your reader should have to stop and think when asked who are the Democrats and Republicans in the story.

Note: comments with swears and nastiness don’t get published on this blog, be civil.

The #Orville: Star Trek alternative or moral sinkhole

A lot of people who have once loved the Star Trek series but are turned off by the modern movie series in which James T. Kirk seems to be a sexual predator as well as a bratty overgrown kid. Some people seem to think the new series ‘The Orville’ is a enough like Star Trek to be an alternative, plus it’s on free TV so we can all see it.

But a recent episode shows that The Orville is not the family-safe show that the original Star Trek was. The big funny in the episode is that there was a male alien who went into heat and gave off pheromones which attracted reproductively  irrelevant species and genders. The captain of the Orville and his ex-wife and first officer were competing for the alien’s sexual attention and neglecting their duties. The ship’s female doctor— mother of two fatherless kids— had sex with an alien who looks like a pile of goo. But it was all OK in the end because the crew used the pheromones to make two male warring aliens have sex with each other and believe they were ‘soulmates.’

Ok, funny. Not someone one could watch with their kids, other people’s kids, parents, grandparents or pastor in the house, but funny. And wholly unrealistic.

In the real world a military space ship that has mainly peaceful intentions would have to train its people to resist sexual temptations especially when dealing with other species or cultures. There are good reasons why cultures all over Earth have had rules against certain forms of sexual behavior. Adultery not only destroys marriages but what happens to a child when its father suspects he’s not the daddy, and that fact can be confirmed with DNA tests? Fornication with young unmarried women can lead to them becoming unsuitable for marriage. And it is highly likely that many cultures will look at sexual relations with other, different-looking species to be a form of bestiality that would cause outrage.

In addition, it’s very possible that sexually transmitted diseases that are mild for one species can mean death to another. We can see a little of that in the history of Earth in how mild non-sexual diseases like measles became a deadly plague to Indians in the Americas. Not only would Our Heroes from the Orville probably not enjoy, say, a flesh-eating STD, if they passed it on to members of an alien species before they knew they were infected it might well be considered an act of war.

Some viewers of The Orville may believe that one of the alien crew members is involved in a homosexual relationship, since both partners seem male. But an episode reveals that though the species considers itself ‘all male’, females are born (hatched, actually) and they are given ‘sex change’ operations. The alien crew member’s husband revealed herself to be born female, so therefore the relationship is not homosexual.

The Fox channel has a long history of providing raunchy and/or inappropriate programming even if the programming might also attract children, as in The Simpsons, Married with Children, and many others I’ve never even watched. Sadly, the Orville’s content as well as its mocking tone make sure that children can’t be inspired by it as I was by the original Star Trek. If only television producers had not lost the art of making clean television programming that even Christian and/or conservative families could enjoy!

Left Behind: Thinking Characters and Flashbacks in 1st Chapter

Recently I was re-reading one of my how-to-write books by Christian author James Scott Bell, and he spoke of how many first time writers write a novel beginning with a character just sitting, thinking. Often the thinking includes thinking about loads of backstory items, which make that opening into an info-dump.

And then I went upstairs to get something to read and I picked Left Behind, a bestselling Christian novel which made the whole nation aware of the Rapture theory, which was previously pretty obscure even among Christians. And I noted that the first chapter began with main character Rayford Steele, a pilot, sitting in the cockpit thinking.

Now, we know that Jerry B. Jenkins, writer of the series (LaHaye was the theologian and prophecy-wrangler) was not a bad writer. In the author bio in the back of the book it tells that Jenkins had written over 100 books at that time. And Left Behind went on to be a major bestselling book which crossed over into secular audiences. So we know that sitting-and-thinking opening worked. But why did it work?

The scene in question begins on page 1 of my paperback copy and goes on to page 5. I think that the main reason it works was that what Rayford was thinking about was, in fact, adultery.

Now, most people who don’t normally read Evangelical Christian fiction think that is all about devout and perfect Christians who never swear, drink or pick up a deck of cards. So when Rayford starts off thinking about adultery, and about how he feels okay about that because he is ‘repelled’ by his wife Irene’s ‘religious obsession.’

Non-Christian readers (I was non-Christian when I first read the book) were reassured that Rayford was a ‘guy like us’ who wasn’t a religious fanatic or holier-than-thou. Devoutly Christian readers, on the other hand, got the idea that Rayford was not actually a believing Christian but a nominal Christian who went to church only for social purposes and thought that ought to be good enough for God.

The sitting-and-thinking opening also introduce us to some basic facts— the makeup of Rayford’s family, the fact he had not ever cheated on his wife but he was thinking of changing that, and the fact that he was currently flying a 747 airliner over the Atlantic to Heathrow.

Another important bit of info Jenkins is slipping us is the fact that Rayford’s wife had become interested in Bible prophecy and that she believed in the Rapture theory and had told her husband enough that he knew about it (and was not interested.) This is essential setup for the rest of the chapter when Rayford discovers that a number of passengers had disappeared from the airplane and had left their neatly folded clothes behind.

The first chapter goes from Rayford’s thinking-about-adultery scene to another scene that does something that writing teachers warn against in first chapters: it goes into a flashback. The flashback involves a second major character, Cameron Williams, who is a reporter and flashes back to an exciting event he had witnessed in his reporting career— a seemingly miraculous event which thwarted a Russian attack against Israel. (This event has Bible-prophecy significance to the story.)

The problem with a first-chapter flashback, as a writing teacher will tell you, is that you are jumping away from the present story to follow a barely-known character into the past. This break, when poorly done, can make a reader put down a book, never to resume. I mean, it’s harder to stay interested in the story when the author is making you jump around in time before you have even gotten interested in the characters! I have sometimes gotten quite lost in a story because I have a habit of skim-reading especially when part of a chapter seems boring. I can miss the clues that a flashback is starting and wonder what the heck is going on.

The flashback works in this case because it is action-packed, and shows Cameron Williams in action as a reporter willing to go to dangerous places to get a story. It might not have been the best choice for the chapter, but it did get one of the authors desired Bible-prophecy events checked off the list. And it establishes the key fact that Cameron Williams believed in God but had not become a Christian by this point— something essential to establish since the Rapture was going to hit before the end of the chapter.

As a reader, I found that first chapter quite exciting enough to get my attention. I was not a Christian at that time, but when I had been Christian, I had never been in a church that taught the Rapture theory. When I read it I kind of took a superior attitude and thought I knew better than those dumb Evangelical Christians. But I enjoyed the book, and the series, as exciting futuristic disaster-fiction. Probably a reader today might call it ‘dystopian.’


Note: if you are unfamiliar with the Rapture theory, Protestant historian Dave MacPherson has traced the origin of the theory to a private revelation to a young Scottish lady in the year 1830. This private revelation, when made known, impressed some preachers in a church called the Plymouth Brethren who were interested in Bible prophecy. One of them was C. I. Scofield who produced the Scofield Reference Bible which is a popular book to this day. MacPherson has written a book on the history of the Rapture theory as he has discovered it in Plymouth Brethren writings of the time, The Rapture Plot. If you belong to a church or denomination which does NOT teach the Rapture theory, I think it might be a good idea to read MacPherson’s book if you are planning to read or re-read the Left Behind series so you will understand that the Rapture is not a universal belief of all Bible-believing Christians.

 

No #Christmas before #Advent

In the past couple of years, at the Family Dollar store in town, the week before Halloween they take the Halloween stuff down and replace it with Christmas stuff. I’ve already had alleged Christmas music— Jesus-free— imposed on me at a store when I went with my mom to pick up her prescriptions.

I’ve grown up with the fact that retailers are addicted to the Christmas season to make their profit for the year. My father, a Kresge and Kmart store manager, wasn’t around much during December until Christmas morning— he came home late on Christmas eve. At least he was retired by the time Kmart experimented with being open on Christmas day. (Remember, when you choose to shop on Thanksgiving or Christmas day, you are taking away those holidays from the families of employees and management.)

Constant Christmas causes stress, even though sentimental people may love months of Christmas music and Christmas movies on TV. It reminds people that they have to buy gifts and plan parties and events, send out Christmas cards, and so on. And what do retailers now want people to do with all that stress? Buy themselves new TVs, computers, and cars. People can always max out their credit cards and spend the rest of the year paying them off— and paying loads of interest which makes any Christmas ‘deals’ that actually were good deals to no effect.

And in all this retailer-induced madness, what happens if someone mentions the name of Jesus Christ? You’re a party pooper. Or, worse, you are a hater who is bigoted against Jewish people, Muslims and atheists. Which in the minds of the politically correct means you want those people to die and are probably willing to bring that about yourself. Yes, that means when you put up a sign on your lawn that asks ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ liberals are reading that as ‘I want to be like Hitler’ and they will whine to their friends about all the ‘haters’ in their town.

The church does not teach us to celebrate a Christmas buying fest with months of self-indulgence. The church teaches us to celebrate Christmas eve and Christmas day by going to church and worshiping. Before Christmas, we have the four Sundays of Advent to celebrate. It begins on Dec. 3rd this year.

Advent is not a good church season in which to buy yourself a new smartphone or car, or eat your favorite Christmas candy or cookies every day.  Originally Advent was considered a lot like Lent. You made sacrifices as a sign you were sorry about your sins. In the Eastern Church I believe Advent was called ‘Little Lent’.  What are YOU giving up for Advent?

Keeping Advent and Christmas in our culture is hard. Your workplace may demand that you participate in ‘Winter Holiday’ parties— Jesus-free Christmas celebrations. If you are a parent who is still letting your kids be raised by wolves— go to public school— they may be assigned to write Jesus-free Santa Claus letters. In our area the schools traditionally send these to the local paper to be printed in a special pre-Christmas edition so all the grandparents in the area can chuckle over all the kids ‘cute’ and usually greedy letters.

Of course the schools will never mention the truth about Santa Claus— that he is a mere nickname for an actual human person, Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop (senior pastor) whose feast day is December 6th. That is the traditional day for gifts from Saint Nicholas, usually, in the old days, mostly candy and an orange, which at that time were not everyday fare for kids but a special treat. My mother, born in 1927 to German immigrant parents, remembers celebrating St. Nicholas day, even though they were Protestants. It was a general celebration in Germany.

If you want to celebrate Advent and Christmas in a Christian way, you have to kind of step back from our culture. Stop watching so much secular TV when the rush of Christmas ads begin, even though that is earlier each year. I have a hard time giving up TV because I live alone and putting the TV on makes me feel less lonely. So I start changing the channel to EWTN, a commercial-free Catholic channel, most of the day. I used to sometimes watch the Shepherd’s Chapel channel, which is a commercial-free Protestant Bible study channel, but I don’t agree with all of the theology, especially not now that I’m Catholic, so I don’t watch as much.

If you have kids that are TV or internet addicts it may be next to impossible to get to detach from that bad influence without a major battle. But our culture has gotten so far off the track that people are complaining when someone asks for prayers in the wake of a natural, criminal or terrorist disaster. Because ‘prayers don’t help.’ That’s how the TV and internet are raising your kids. And that’s a year-long problem not just an internet one. But an Advent celebration might be a way to wean your kids away from these bad influences, and, most importantly, towards good ones. Like having days during Advent when the only television watched is EWTN and/or Shepherd’s Chapel.

HINT: in the Catholic celebration of Lent the sacrifices you are making usually have Sundays off, since Sunday is always a day of celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. So if you are avoiding buying and eating Christmas candy or cookies in pre-Advent and early Advent, you can allow yourself a little on the Sundays of Advent to make things more festive.

Will Sutherland Springs Church Shooting hero be forgotten? #2A

By now you’ve heard about the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, TX. There were about 26 people killed and 20 wounded by a shooter who had been in trouble for domestic violence.

But the hero of the day was a person who lived near the church who, when he heard shooting, grabbed his ‘assault rifle’ (deer hunting gun, probably) and ran toward the shooting. He fired shots at the assailant and hit him, and the shooter drove away from the scene. One wonders how many more might have died except for this brave man’s heroism.

But of course the anti-Second Amendment crowd didn’t wait for the bodies to cool before they DEMANDED more anti-gun laws. Laws that would have made these church people even more defenseless. People in upper-class, big-city neighborhoods don’t understand this, but in rural and small-town America, the nearest police are often 20 or 30 minutes away. But as long as we have the 2nd Amendment intact, at least we can choose to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

One troubling thing I’ve heard was that the shooter was wearing body armor. Now, if someone is willing to shoot a lot of innocent people dead in church he will probably be willing to get guns, ammo and body armor illegally if he can’t get it legally. Murderers are just not that law-abiding that they would worry about illegal purchases.  But the hero who confronted the shooter was in greater danger than he knew. Thank God that this brave man was not shot or killed before he could get the shooter to flee away from his victims.

I would think that one way to honor the hero, besides NOT demonizing him and other gun owners by demonizing the gun owners grass-roots organization, the NRA, is for each of us to learn more about guns. The NRA may have gun safety classes in your area. The more of us who know how to protect ourselves with guns, the harder we make life for would-be criminals.