Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

CRAFT: Characters, POV and Sympathy

This week, I'm rereading one of my favorite books, Death of a Duchess by Elizabeth Eyre (actually, that is a writing team). It's a mystery set during the Italian Renaissance. What I find very interesting about this book is the use of point of view (POV) and descriptions of the hero. This book violates just about everything I've learned in writing classes, and yet I personally find it hard to put down and it ranks as one of my all time favorite books. I wanted to bring this to other writers' attention because it highlights that there really are NO RULES: There is only what works (as published authors are so fond of saying).

Death of a Duchess is the first in a series of books about a man who performs investigations for his Duke. In this first book, the duke's duchess has been murdered, although it starts out with one of the noblemen's daughters being kidnapped. I provide this information so that you understand the situation and realize this is the first introduction to the main character, Sigismondo.

POV in this book ranges from inanimate objects, e.g. the wind, to characters, but mostly resides in Benno who is a servant picked up on page 6 during this first book. This is somewhat reminiscent of the role Dr. Watson plays with Sherlock Holmes.

It is rife with passive voice. I mention this because we are so often told that passive voice is a no-no. Another rule that really should be more of a guideline (and a loose one at that) than a rule.

Anyway, here are the first several paragraphs in the book. I sincerely hope I'm not violating any copyrights, and I do encourage folks to buy the book because it is extremely good. It starts out with a very exciting statement, which (in my mind) immediate captures the reader. This very sentence sets up a puzzle in the reader's mind that demands an answer. It is what keeps the reader, reading.

If you can write something which catches the reader's attention as well, you are either a published author, or will be, soon.

(I've highlighted mentions of the hero in bold red.)
...From the Death of a Duchess

    "From this very bed she was snatched!"
    The Lord Jacopo di Torre's long sleeve followed his dramatic gesture and swept a scent bottle from the bedside chest. The Duke's emissary, with an agility unexpected in one of his strong build, caught it and stood turning it as if to admire the carved onyx and gold. Jacopo waited for a comment about the bed, whose sheets had been wrenched back, pillows tossed abroad with every sign of a violent struggle. There could be no doubt that he was right. This had been the very bed.

    "You heard nothing?" asked the deep foreign voice.
    The emissary's dark eyes genially surveyed the doorful of servants who gaped and manoeuvred for a better view. "And no one else heard anything?"

    Heads were shaken. An elderly woman in an extinguishing headkerchief kept up a low wail amid her linen. Jacopo glanced at her in irritation. "Even my sister slept. No one heard anything. In this whole household, every living soul slept!"

    Not one of the servants seemed ready to oppose this. To sleep soundly at a legitimate hour was, after all, the mark not of laziness but of exhaustion brought on by virtuous toil.

Because of all the talk about creating sympathetic heroes, and my love for Sigismondo, I went back to see why this character works so well. The writing team of Elizabeth Eyre has done an amazing job with Sigismondo, as you can see from the text listed above. For the first few pages, all we have are brief descriptions of him and a few actions. Until page 9, he is just called 'the emissary'. On page 9, we get his name.

I believe we like Sigismondo from the beginning, because of the contrast between his calm, thoughtfulness and Jacopo's irritation and over-reactions. This is a point I really wanted to bring out. So many writers bring their heroine or hero onstage with a dramatic flourish where that character is fuming in anger or some other violent emotion. I believe that is a quick way to alienate readers, because what do people do when they see someone angry in public? They avoid them. I really dislike books where my introduction to the heroine is when she's angry or overreacting in some way.

In any event, here are the first few references to Sigismondo:
Page 1 agility unexpected in one of his strong build...
...The emissary's dark eyes genially surveyed the doorful of servants...

Page 2
...The heavy shoulders shrugged, and the emissary indicated, with a movement more economical than Jacopo's, the bed...
...The emissary nodded as if it were axiomatic that a wise dog would stifle noise for fear of harm. He asked no further about yard dogs...

...Jacopo chivvied him to the window with darting motions of the hands that failed of actually touching the fine black leather of the man's jerkin...

[Who doesn't love a broad-shouldered man in black leather who intimidates men in power?]

Page 3 (this is an absolutely WONDERFUL habit of Sigismondo described here and used hereafter - I adore this trait.)

...He had a habit, which Jacopo found as irritating as his sister's wailing, of humming deep in his chest when he was shown anything. It was not a tune, but a sound like a satisfied bee. It conveyed the disturbing impression that all he saw was what he expected to see. He leant over the stone balustrade and, narrowing his eyes...

...At his leisure, the large man reversed...
...The emissary would have had some difficulty not seeing the cloth thrust at his face, but he did not stir...

On page 6, we meet: ...The lack-wit had large round eyes. He looked up at the broad-shouldered man in black...

This brings onstage Benno, who is thrown out by Jacopo and immediately follows the emissary and picks up the narration to a large degree. This is another way we begin to like Sigismondo - he "picks up" this servant who was thrown out to starve and who actually proves to be beneficial to the investigation. Showing Sigismondo understands that the servant is more than just a lack-wit, and is kind enough to provide him food and employment. A few pages later, Sigismondo also provides a few coins to some beggar children and tousles their hair (despite it being matted and louse-infested).

So, that's the hero--no name until page 9. You never get into his head, except a few quick glimpses here and there. In this, he is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

POV purists would go insane with this book. To a large degree, there IS no POV (it's omniscient) or the POV is from an inanimate object's perspective. I really love that aspect because it makes many of the descriptions exceptionally vivid. Here are some of the finest examples:

This paragraph (p. 15) starts out from Benno's POV and then drifts. I'm including the entire paragraph because it begins with another of the sparse descriptions of Sigismondo.

    Sigismondo gave a hum of general assent. They walked down the wide cobbled ramp, and Benno began to speak, but, looking up at the dark, somewhat monumental face, he stopped and trotted alongside in silence. They left the Castello, coming out from the gatehouse tunnel and looking over the coral-and-gold patchwork, higgledy-piggledy, of tiled roofs punctuated by the tall spires of churches and the towers of minor palaces. Beyond these were fields and the great encircling wall with its gates and turrets; beyond that lay farmland, brown patches of woods and the rising undulations of the hills. The river, which through the centuries had sliced through the hills to the north, had come up against the outcrop of Rocca in the course of its meanderings through the valley and, recognizing an immovable object when it saw it, took a respectful loop around its base and dawdled off into the distance where, just visible, lay the sea.

P. 77

    The bitter wind from the mountains had been amusing itself all day, plucking at the roofs of stalls and women's skirts and coifs, blowing hoods and hats off heads, rattling shutters as though keen to come in by the fire and thaw the ice from its breath, sidling under doors to worry people's ankles, and driving straw and dust everywhere. Now, rejoicing, it met Sigismondo and Benno on the road outside the city walls. As they bent before it, furling cloaks over their mouths, urging the horses on, the wind threw in a sprinkle of snow as an added caress, token of what lay ahead in the hills they road towards.

To me that is one of the greatest descriptions of weather I've read in a long time. As I read this book, I'm just in awe of the writing. It's funny and exciting and despite an almost complete lack of introspection, you (or at least I) adore the characters.

I just wanted to send this because of the discussions about sympathetic characters. There is always more than one way to skin a cat, and there really aren't any rules, just guidelines.

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