Sunday, July 20, 2014

Drawing Through, Drawing In

M.A. Ray here. Good day to you!

Let’s talk filtering.

First, an explanation of what I mean by the word: filtering, to me, is a way to pull my writing through the sieve of a character’s mind. It has the effect of drawing the reader close to the character, and I use it almost all the time, whether the reader notices or not. Primarily, I do the trick using word choice and sentence structure, but in the beginning—and still, on occasion—I used grammar.

In Menyoral I spend the most time looking through one of two sets of eyes: Dingus Xavier’s or Sir Vandis Vail’s. There are plenty of more minor viewpoints (mainly Father Krakus’s and little Stas’s), but the biggest contrast is between Dingus and Vandis, so I’m going to talk about that a bit, and also how you can bring that to your own work.

To do this, to draw my reader right into a character’s headspace, requires intense focus for me. I need to be right in there with the character. Maybe it would be different for you, but sometimes I’m in so close I feel nauseated when they do; I’m feeling what they’d feel, thinking the way they’d think, and for me being briefly someone else is one of the biggest attractions of writing. Interpreting the actions of other characters, interpreting events, through the brain of the POV character, is a lot of fun, even when something bad is happening. Being close, as a writer, to your characters, makes these gymnastics easier.

The mechanics of it are pretty simple. For example, Vandis: formally educated, high position, money’s not a problem, but he came up in the boonies, and some of that still shows in his attitudes—and in my word choice when I write him. He’s got a large vocabulary and he’s not afraid to use it. His sentences are put together more properly. As a dash of flavor, when Vandis isn’t controlling his big mouth, he curses like a soldier. That mostly shows up in his dialogue or thought patterns, but sometimes, if I’m using his point of view, I’ll toss an f-bomb into the narration to give the sense that we’re really inside him.

On the other hand, I’ve got Dingus: no formal education except what Vandis has given, dirt-poor peasant from the hills. His vocabulary is growing, but he has a much poorer grasp on proper usage, and particularly in the first book, he uses double negatives and some constructions unique to the American South—even in the narrative. The more he hangs around Vandis, whom he idolizes, the closer his language comes to baseline, if slightly more profane. Maintaining the uniqueness of his voice has been a challenge, so I’ve turned to sensory inputs more and more when I write him. Dingus has enhanced senses. When he looks at something, he’s not only seeing it, the way I’d write for Vandis. Often I’ll use his sense of smell to bring myself into his head. Vandis will pick up a strong odor or aroma, but Dingus will scent more, and more often.

So here are my tips for writing a very close point of view.

Try to capture the rhythms of speech in the narrative you write, choosing words your character would use particularly. Pull your writing through the filters in his or her mind: what does he perceive about the situations, people, and places before him? What is most notable to him? What sense or senses does he rely on the most? Remember that background and backstory have a lot to do with perception—and misperception. What is the character used to seeing from others? What’s the first thing that leaps to his or her mind when presented with a certain situation?

What I’m getting at here is this: get into their heads. Know your people and live in their skins while you write. The more real they are to you, the more real you’ll be able to make them for your readers. And hey, share in the comments. If you give this a shot because of my article, let me know how it went; if you already do this, give your tips!


  1. When I first saw that you were going to talk about filtering, I was on a whole other track from you! (I was thinking about filtering being bad, in that characters are often starting to do something or beginning to do it: She began to run down the field. Or feeling, as in She felt as if the world had ended.

    Your character work is one of the great ways your books rock and I like that it's a deliberate process or that you've considered the process behind making characters their own, separate people. As you've said in other blog posts, learning, growing, and practicing are essential to becoming a better writer and analyzing why and how you do something is part of that.

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Thanks, Jen! At first, I admit, it wasn't always conscious, but the farther I go, the harder I have to think. Funny how that works...