Friday, February 26, 2016

Head Hopping

“Head hopping,” strictly speaking, refers to the habit some authors have of skipping from one character’s point of view to another’s within a single scene. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most narrators were omniscient, head hopping was normal. Almost all of us encountered it in the books we read, or were assigned to read, in high school. The rise of movies has made it more common again, because the camera routinely shifts to show a given scene from varying angles. But for a while, head hopping was considered a no-no of the writing craft, and the advice is still handed out. Unless handled right, the shifting perspective can confuse readers, and the exposition needed to reintroduce clarity emphasizes the role of the narrator, destroying the illusion that one is experiencing the story through the viewpoint character’s senses.

Before I fell into writing fiction, I never noticed head hopping and so was never bothered by it. That was simply part of reading. Then I learned that head hopping was considered bad form, and now it drives me nuts. It’s like editing. Since I started working as a copy editor, I see typos everywhere. Very annoying, but what can one do?

The head hopping I’m writing about today, however, has nothing to do with switching points of view within scenes or even between chapters. As I get ready to release The Swan Princess into the world, I also have to prepare to reorient myself to new leads for The Vermilion Bird. I know from experience with Legends 2 and 3 that this will take longer than I would like. I need to find ways to understand the new hero and heroine: what they want, what they fear—and especially why they carry such huge chips on their shoulders and what might make them lower their guard enough to embrace the future I have planned for them. One of the basic rules of story is that protagonists change, for better (comedy) or worse (tragedy).

This rule does not always hold. In some cases, most notably in adventure stories and detective novels, the protagonist resists intense pressure to change in negative ways. But in my books, so far, protagonists grow. And boy, do these two need to grow. If they don’t, no one will want to read about them. Moreover, they’re going to kick and scream every step of the way. I can see that already.

It will, I admit, be fun to make them sweat, not least because both of them badly need to grow up. But until I’m certain that The Swan Princess is finished, I don’t dare start putting them through their paces. I have to stay in touch with Nasan and Daniil—who will, no doubt, appear in the new book as well.

Now, if you have never written a novel, you may think, “What is this woman on about? Authors create their characters. They can make them do whatever they want.” Well, no, not exactly. Characters may be fake people, but once the basic traits of their personalities are set, they can respond only in certain ways. If a person who has been established as a career woman announces for no reason in chapter 10 that she’s decided to pack in her high-stakes profession as a criminal defense lawyer for an apron and two cats, readers will reject her as inconsistent—and so they should. She may make that choice by the end of the book, but not unless it’s 100 percent obvious what has been missing in her life that cooking and cats can supply. I know from experience that if as a novelist I am in touch with that character, I will not be able to write the dialogue for such an inconsistent decision. To me, that’s what writers’ block is.

If you have heard writers complain about their characters taking over the story, however, you would be justified in thinking that there is no problem. Don’t characters come into the world full-blown, ready to rip? No, that’s not exactly true either. Characters—especially series characters—may be created initially to serve a limited purpose. The heroine needs someone to bounce ideas off or to get in her way and make life less comfortable. The hero can’t strap on his own armor unless he becomes double-jointed, so he has to have a manservant do it for him. The story requires a marriage or a birth, and the author creates a new character to fit the bill. That criminal defense lawyer can’t do much without accused criminals to defend. In that sense, writers do create their characters and determine their fates.

But once created, characters don’t always stay within their boxes. Protagonists grow, but so do secondary characters. One of the problems in writing a book is to keep the secondary characters from developing to the point where they become more interesting than the hero/heroine and thus take over the story. When this happens in a series, it’s time for a sequel. Hence The Golden Lynx focused on Nasan and Daniil, but I found Ogodai so appealing that I gave him his own book, The Winged Horse. He needed an opponent, whom I originally intended to kill off—until I realized that the opponent had in fact had been quite hard done to. And that the opponent was the perfect match for another difficult secondary character who also pushed at the bars of her cage and might have a story to tell. But I didn’t want to forget Nasan and Daniil, not least because I had of necessity left their relationship unfinished. So I set the opponent aside (with considerable regret) to bring the other two back in The Swan Princess. It took months to reconnect with them, and throughout that time I pushed the other pair onto the back burner of my brain. With luck, it will not take another six months to restart the fire.

But that’s the writing life—at least, my writing life. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image © DVARG/Shutterstock no. 87962452.

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