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Character Corner -- Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer

It has been some while since I did a character review, but then, it has been some while since I read something quite this engaging. I have to say, I picked up Bloody Jack rather on a whim. I enjoy pirate stories, and have one in the works to write myself, so I’m always interested in seeing how other authors portray that era and life on the high seas. (I also have to say that I would never have picked it up at all except for the awesome swashbuckling cover art shown here which, sad to say, seems to have been chucked in the version currently available on Amazon for a cover which is practically cliched in its bland triteness.)

But, it being a Young Adult title, I have to say I went in with fairly low expectations. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig against YA—I love YA, and most of what I write has been YA. I only mean that I wasn’t expecting much more than a hum-drum tale of pirates and Spanish gold. Boy was I wrong, in the best possible way. It is, as the Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “a rattling good read” that kept me up late several nights in a row, largely on the strength of its amazing protagonist.

The protagonist is Mary Faber, a young orphaned waif making a hard living on the streets of London. How she becomes “Jack” Faber and ends up on a ship in His Majesty’s service is a tale in itself, which I won’t spoil here except to say that it is touching and poignant and heartbreaking in all the right ways. And while striving not to spoil anything else in the book, I do want to talk about the some of the many things Meyer does very much right with his protagonist.

Voice

Meyer has an incredible ear for the language of the period. He portrays 18th century English vernacular with incredible facility. Further, he made the perfect choice in writing the book in first-person POV. Thus, not only does the language of the book convey the setting, but it’s also integral to Mary’s characterization. Everything we see is Mary’s take on events. If you go to writers conferences or attend talks by agents and publishers, you’ll always hear them say they’re looking for books with a strong voice. Bloody Jack is a great example.

Personality

Meyer gave his protagonist quite a personality, and one that is perfectly fitted to her backstory. It is never difficult to believe that she would feel and act in the ways she does. Her ship-board life demands acts of bravery, which she supplies, not because she’s brave (and at several points Mary herself remarks on how she was never very brave) but because she’s a survivor and because she’ll do just about anything to protect the people she cares about. Meyer has done an amazing job of portraying someone who really does wish she could just have a quiet, peaceful, safe life, but can’t, and yet rises to the occasion in order to get by.

Those are Mary’s major themes. But Meyer didn’t stop there. He gave her some additional colorful personality traits—a love of music, a playfully evil mischievious streak, and a right saucy sailor mouth—all of which he works into the fabric of the storyline. None of those traits are there just for fun. Every one of them has a meaningful impact on the ship-board events, and affects Mary’s standing significantly.

He also portrays her as an intelligent, thoughtful girl. This largely comes through in the way she thinks about life, and the occasional deeply insightful observations she makes about it. And if I may go off on a tangent for a moment, I think novels give writers a unique opportunity to make readers think about things they might not otherwise think about. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. The wrong way is to be heavy-handed, preachy, and moralistic in your narrative, to make sure the reader cannot possibly miss how you feel about an issue. The right way is simply to shine a little light on an issue, show your readers how your characters feel about it, and let readers make up their own minds. If you do read Bloody Jack (which I highly recommend), pay attention to Mary’s observations about the differences between men’s and women’s clothing for a great example of how to do that right.

Goals

There’s a saying that in every scene, you have to know what the goals of each character are. Further, characters are supposed to have an over-riding goal for the story, one that is captured in the story’s central conflict. Mary definitely has goals in every scene, but she doesn’t so much have a goal for the whole story as she has a series of escalating goals. One of the parts of Bloody Jack I enjoyed most was watching the evolution of Mary’s goals as the book progresses. In the beginning, her threats are starvation, freezing to death in the winter, and the gruesomely portrayed antagonist Mr. Muck. Her goal is simple survival. But as the book progresses, her goals shift, little by little, until by the end she has gained meaningful long-term goals for her whole life.

Her character arc is wrapped up in her ever-expanding event horizon. In the beginning of the book, she doesn’t expect to live long at all. Street urchins usually don’t. But by the end, everything has changed. Watching her go from hopelessness to hopeful about the future, and watching her have dreams and make plans about the future, was really beautiful to read. Like watching someone come back to life. Masterfully done, Mr. Meyer. Masterfully done indeed.

Treatment

Finally, the way Meyer treats Mary in the book is perfect. She has a hard life, and Meyer doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t do the worst thing possible to her, which would be to baby her. If you want to read a great example of the adage “when in doubt, make it worse,” read Bloody Jack. Because Meyer relentlessly makes her situation worse, while at the same time making it much, much better. It’s a great piece of writerly jujitsu, watching how he alleviates one problem in her life only to reveal more subtle, darker, sinister problems lurking in wait.

All in all, I loved Bloody Jack. Even better, it’s the first book in series chronicling the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. I’m excited to read the rest! Give Bloody Jack a try. You won’t be sorry.

August 20, 2010 18:11 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, L.A. Meyer, Bloody Jack, voice, personality, goals, treatment

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How to pick the right point of view for your novel

In this article I’m going to give you some practical, hands-on guidelines for choosing the right point of view (POV) for your novel, a task which is not always as straightforward as it sounds. While I can’t tell you what’s right for your novel—only you can decide that—I can explain the ramifications of each, so you can weigh the pros and cons yourself.

Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. The POV choice is such a deep, fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write.

This isn’t a grammar lesson, so I’m going to assume you know the technical difference between first-person and a third-person POVs. Instead, we’re going to look at the options each one gives for how you present your plot and characters, what kinds of mysteries you can create and preserve, and how well you can establish a connection between the reader and your characters.

Third-person omniscient. This is the classic “God’s eye” view of the world. You are allowed to show the reader anything at any time: thoughts, actions, dialogue, even events where your characters aren’t present. The story is told with no explicit narrator.

Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who all follow their own story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.

However, third-person omniscient is also the emotionally coldest point of view. It is the most distant from your characters. Because third-person can (and often does) skip around from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, it is difficult for readers to form any close emotional ties with the characters.

For books where the plot is the central attraction for readers, third-person omniscient is often the best choice. If your novel doesn’t have much in the way of character arc—if your characters don’t particularly grow or change over the course of the story—then this could well be the way to go.

Third-person limited. Grammatically, this is exactly like third-person omniscient. The only difference is that in third-person limited POV, you channel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show the POV character’s inner thoughts and opinions, you can show what the character sees, hears, and feels. But, you may only show those things. Showing other characters’ thoughts or events the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.

Third-person limited gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between reader and character and is very effective at giving the reader the same experience of the story as the POV character.

Third-person limited is a great choice when you have an essentially linear plot with minimal diversions or side journeys, and a single main character who experiences all the important plot events. Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. This is a good choice for stories where the outer events of your plot matter (that is, you couldn’t get the same effect by switching a plane crash into a train crash, for example), yet those events are closely tied to the character’s inner growth.

First-person. This is when you present one character as the narrator of your story. The character literally relays the story to the reader in present tense as it unfolds, or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.

First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. But, it is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.

Note, harder does not mean better. There are distinct differences between first-person and third-person limited, and each has its place. Because first-person writing involves the main character narrating the story for the reader, it’s not the same presentation of information as in third-person limited.

In either POV, the writer is always in control, but that’s not what a reader perceives. In a first-person story, the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: in first-person writing the narrator can lie to the reader, either by commission or omission. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer conveying the information, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.

A so-called “unreliable narrator” can create very powerful mysteries, especially if in lying to the reader the narrator is really attempting to lie to him or herself. If your story demands a large, surprising reversal somewhere along the line, an unreliable first-person narrator is an effective way to do it.

Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:

First-person plural This is when the book’s narrator is a group, rather than a character, and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Not many books do this, and it’s easy to see why: very few have a premise which permits it. But when done well, it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were part of the collective “we” that’s relating the story.

Second-person. This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.”

Second-person stories are very rare, and I think for good reason. It is far too easy for this to feel like a gimmick than a good writing choice. In fact, the only examples of this style that I can think of offhand are those entirely gimmicky Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. (However, if you know of a literary novel that does this and does it well, please share it down in the comments. I’d like to see it.) In theory, I suppose, this POV would eliminate the emotional distance between the reader and the main character entirely.

Multiple POVs. This is simply when you use the techniques of first-person or third-person limited writing, but apply them to multiple characters in the same book. If you try this at all, make sure you know what you’re doing, and think carefully before violating the guideline that you should only switch between POV characters at a scene break or a chapter break.

Multiple third-person limited would not be much different than good third-person omniscient writing. But multiple first-person writing can be incredibly compelling, because it gives a double-dose of the pure character driven experience that only good first-person writing can do. At present, my favorite example of this is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This should be a case study for anyone who wants to try multiple first-person POVs.

In a nutshell, here’s how to choose the right POV for your story. First, answer these four questions:

  1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?

  2. Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?

  3. How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?

  4. Do you need a large, surprising reversal that an unreliable narrator could create?

Next, evaluate your answers against the criteria I’ve given above. A complex plot forces most novels into third-person omniscient. Other plot structures have more leeway with POV. Plot-driven stories tend towards third-person, while character driven stories tend towards first-person. Close emotional distance argues for third-person limited or first-person. If you want your characters to be more opaque and enigmatic, third-person omniscient is the way to go. If your novel is more experimental, you might want one of the rare, oddball POVs instead.

Choosing the right POV is important, even critical, to the success of your novel. But with the right guidelines in mind, and by asking yourself the right questions, the right answer is usually easy to find.

September 01, 2009 18:22 UTC

Tags: character, emotional distance, first-person, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, multiple first-person, point of view, POV, unreliable narrator, Audrey Niffenegger, Frank Gilbreth, voice

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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