Setting, POV, Backstory and Characterization: Part Two

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When last we saw our intrepid main character, Joe, his creator (the writer) was using Joe’s POV to use Setting to reveal Character. For those of you playing along at home, it went something like this:

Joe walked down the crowded sidewalk, eyeing up possible targets from among the multitude of Christmas shoppers. Some of them carried bags, but in his experience those bags were too easily turned into weapons at the slightest provocation. If he was going to pretend to slip on the icy sidewalk and grope a woman on the way down, it was best to go after the ones with boxes. Their hands were too full to do much until he had already grabbed himself a good handful. Heck, if he did it just right, he might be able to use his legs as he fell to trip one of these women and get her to fall on top of him. Then she’d be apologizing for pressing herself up against him instead of screaming bloody murder. Joe liked the sound of that. And the young blonde coming toward him with the oversized hatbox wrapped in emerald green paper looked like just the one to start with.

Joe liked Christmas. It was his favorite time of year.

Point being, just about every single descriptive item ties in to something Joe was thinking, planning, or wanting. Used efficiently, scenery can paint a lot of different kinds of pictures, both internal and external. There’s a lot packed into a pretty small space, but I think it’s pretty much self-explanatory.

Today we’re going to use this same basic technique, but expand it to include backstory so as to paint an even fuller picture of Joe.

Now, the vast majority of comments about last week’s post used the word “creepy” when describing Joe. Let’s follow him home after his escapades with the holiday shoppers and see what we find there. (I have no idea what to expect; I’m making this up as I go along.)


Home at last, Joe walked in the front door, dipping his head so as not to meet the unblinking gazes of the photographic portraits of his twin sister, his mother, his grandmother, and the fourteen other aunts and female cousins who lined the long front hallway. If he just didn’t meet their eyes, he—

“Joe!” screamed his ancient mother from her bedroom, and immediately fear stabbed at him like the Devil’s own pitchfork. Eighty-three years old and the woman still terrified him. He shook his head in disgust at his spineless reaction, but he quickened his pace just the same.

Opening Mother’s bedroom door, he was instantly hit by the stench of urine. Again. He looked over his shoulder, wondering where his twin sister, Maria, was. It was her night to care for Mother, her night to—

“Bring me my hair brush!” shrieked Mother, running one pruned hand through her still naturally black curls. “My hair is getting all tangled and I WANT MY BRUSH!”

Joe eyed the brush on the rickety night-table next to the bed. It was mostly silver, with gold inlay; very old and very heavy. It was probably the most valuable thing anyone in their family had ever owned, passed from one generation to the next by the women in the family, and it looked ridiculously out of place on the peeling faux wood night-table where it sat. It was within easy reach if Mother would just reach out her hand. But she wouldn’t do it. She never did.

“Joe!” Mother shrieked again. It seemed like all she ever did anymore was shriek. But he couldn’t make himself move. How could he? She had beaten him with that hairbrush so many times that he was terrified to be in the same room with it. He was terrified of the word ‘hair-brush.’ And why not: he had lost count of the number of times he had been woken up as a teenager by his mother pulling his blanket off his bed. She would then wait just long enough for him to realize that he had gotten an erection in his sleep before she started beating him with that silver and gold heirloom.

She said it was for his own good. She said that if he didn’t want to end up a dirty, stinking, filthy pig of a rapist like his father, he had to control himself. Even in his sleep. Yes, even in his sleep.

Joe appreciated what Mother was trying to do for him; he really did. He didn’t want to be like the man who had created him in a fit of violence and then disappeared forever. He wanted to grow up to be better. Stronger, mentally and spiritually. But as he would curl up into a ball on top of his bare mattress and try to endure his righteous punishment, he inevitably caught sight of his twin sister, Maria, framed in the doorway of his dingy bedroom. A golden light from the hallway streamed in from behind her and silhouetted her like an angel sent from heaven, and her head would bob up and down in time to Mother’s strokes as the brush rose and fell. When the beating was over Maria would simply turn, without a word, and disappear down the hall and into her own brightly painted bedroom.

Not before Joe saw it, though. Not before Joe saw the smile that proved the sheer, unadulterated pleasure she took in watching him being beaten. Joe had never understood that pleasure. She was a child of rape the same way he was. She was a child of the very same rape, so why did she act like she blamed him for it?

“Joe!” shrieked Mother yet again, snapping him out of his haze of memories. She pointed toward the faux wood night-table and repeated, softly, coldly, not yelling anymore, “Bring. Me. My. Hair brush.”

###

Well, I had no idea what we were going to find at Joe’s house once we got inside, but having looked around (through his eyes), I’ve got to say this much: I don’t necessarily like Joe any more than I did last week when we first met him, but I understand him a little better and can say with certainty, Wow, it sucks to be Joe! Kinda makes you want to throw momma from the train. Then again, we know she was raped at least once; who knows what else she’s been through. Abuse runs through generations like water through a trash-filled gutter.

Looking at things a little more clinically, the scene really hinges on a small handful of items of description. First, the scenery in the opening paragraph sets things in motion: Home at last, Joe walked in the front door, dipping his head so as not to meet the unblinking gazes of the photographic portraits of his twin sister, his mother, his grandmother, and the fourteen other aunts and female cousins who lined the long front hallway. If he didn’t meet their eyes, he—

Clearly this is not a normal household. Seventeen photos hanging in the hallway, all of them women? And if poor Joe can’t even make eye contact with their pictures, what kind of relationship must he have the real people?

We get all that from the scenery and from Joe’s reaction to it.

Then we come to the hairbrush. It’s just a hair brush, right? Most every household has at least one.

Just sitting on the night-table all by itself, yes, it would be just another hair brush. But throw in a dash of POV and suddenly that hair brush becomes a gateway to a lot of valuable information. A writer who wasn’t aware of Vernor’s Law (see David’s post from two Mondays ago, or mine from last Saturday, where I referred you back to David’s post from two Mondays ago) might have just given us a quick info-dump to tell us that Joe was the product of a rape and his twisted mother tried to beat his sexuality out of him. But by now I know that you all know that info-dumps are cumbersome and unartful. So we work these details into the story by using every day items around the house as gateways, opening doors to places the characters would really rather not go (which is where all the good stuff is usually hiding).

There are some other details, bits of scenery and such that give more information or help move the story forward (contrasting the night-table with the hair brush is a much more natural way to bring it into the scene than just stating that it’s sitting there, and gives me an excuse to slip in the detail about how long the brush has been in the family; or contrasting Joe’s dingy bedroom with Maria’s brightly painted room to contrast their relative worth in their mother’s eyes; etc.), but between last week’s essay and this one, I’m confident in your ability to spot how those details are woven in. The thing I want you to focus on is how vital POV is to bringing meaning to these details, so they can serve you (as an author) in creating a richer, fuller story, instead of just ticking them off as one more set of items on a laundry list of stuff that serves no purpose other than letting the reader know what the room looks like.


(BTW, portions of this post were brought to you courtesy of Sarah, who insisted last week that she “needed narrative closure dammit.”  Thank you, Sarah.  😉  )

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13 comments to Setting, POV, Backstory and Characterization: Part Two

  • Wow. Really nice, Edmund. The part I loved best was the twin watching. Enjoying. There is something so horrible about a smile in the wrong place, about silent pleasure in the face of misery. It’s that one little detail that made the scene so very wrong. so twisted. The mother was horrible throughout. But the sister, angelic and lovely, smiling…
    Excellent.
    (goosebumps)

  • Thanks, Faith. It takes a twisted mind to appreciate a twisted mind. 😉

  • So I’m guessing that the words “Joe” and “mental health” don’t get used together a lot.

    Very evocative, and perfect illustration of combining backstory, setting, and character. Well done.

  • Thanks, David. It takes mental health to… no, wait, never mind.

  • Sarah

    So this is MY fault is it? Just kidding – and thank you for the evocative, if horrific, demonstration of backstory.

    Off the main topic of the post, I really appreciate the way that your story demonstrates the complexity of familial abuse, and the complex dynamic of sympathy and revulsion that can create in the viewer. There is no clear line between victim and abuser because today’s victim is tomorrow’s abuser. And yet, as your story shows, this is no place for moral equivalency in which “well, she/he was abused” becomes a blanket excuse for inflicting suffering on another person.

  • Lance Barron

    Yes, as in the air in a tornado is twisted. Very powerful demonstration. And the twin sister inherits the brush, right?

  • Not your “fault” per se, Sarah. But someday when you do something like this to one of your writing students, hopefully you’ll look back and remember this moment and maybe break the cycle. 😉 In all seriousness, that cycle of victim and abuser is a truly nasty one that destroys a lot of lives. It’s tragic, but never should be accepted as an excuse.

    Lance, I like the way you take the known facts and extrapolate. I wish all readers were that astute.

  • Razziecat

    I’m sensing that that hairbrush is shortly going to figure prominently in a domestic violence incident involving Joe and his mother…

    These posts have been eye-opening for me. I’ve never seen a clearer explanation of how setting, backstory, character description and so on fit together and enhance each other. I realize that many times, when I think I’m writing from my MC’s POV, it’s really been my own POV. Even better, I understand now how to avoid that and make my writing better. Thank you!!! :)

  • What a twisted piece. :) I empathized with Joe by the end of it, and found my “writer’s brain” (the part that got me in trouble with friends in high school when watching movies) predicting a story about redemption, or at least a feeble attempt towards redemption. Or if not that, it shows how he’ll very easily fall prey to the machinations of the true villain.

    The hairbrush is what stood out most for me. Great examples!

  • Razzie — Very glad you’re finding this helpful and easy to understand. You raise an interesting point that I hadn’t ever considered: the writer’s POV vs the character’s POV. Even in tight third person POV there actually is a narrator’s voice that is not only present but necessary. Maybe that can be next week’s topic.

    Laura — Last week everybody said “creepy,” this week it was all “twisted.” At least there’s consistency among the inmates. I’ll go to the movies with you anytime; I do the same thing and it drive most of my family crazy (especially the post-movie analysis during the drive home). But to me it’s fun; it’s part of the experience of going to see a movie.

  • I know that your focus here is on technique–and very effective it is too–but let me reiterate the larger strategy which touches on things Faith has discussed before. One dimensional villains aren’t interesting because they aren’t realistic. What youa re doing here so nicely is explaining villainy without excusing it, deepening the character so that we empathize with his lot, without for one moment letting us turn a blind eye to his moral bancrupty and the damage to otehrs he might cause. Nice balancing act.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the post, Edmund. I wish I could work everything in so seamlessly. Ah well. Practice, practice, practice. I’ll get there. This is such an informative series of posts – at the beginning I thought of Joe as “dangerous, very dangerous”, now I’m thinking, “tortured, so that’s why he’s a villain, possibly even more dangerous than before”. One question. Can this be overused? Or should every part of the setting described help to bring out details of character?
    Unicorn

  • A.J. — Thanks. The depth of the villain wasn’t my primary thought, but it was definitely in there. Everyone’s instant (and correct) reaction to Joe last week of “What a creepy guy” seemed to require that I follow it with something deeper.

    Unicorn — To answer your question with one word: absolutely. Anything can be overdone. Trying to load every word, every phrase, every item of description with portent is like adding a pound of mustard to a ham sandwich. Part of what made writing this example easier than writing an actual story is that I didn’t have to worry about balance. All I had to do was make sure the point was clear. Finding the right balance in a novel (or even in a short story) requires a deft hand, and frankly there’s no essay that can teach that. It comes from practice, practice, and more practice.