Finding Focus

Lately I’ve been having some trouble in my fiction writing with what I’ll call focus. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right word, but it’s how I explain the problem to myself. Hopefully explaining it out loud will help more than other more generic advice.

Essentially, I’ve been having some trouble getting into a particular character’s head. I realize that’s a nutty thing to say, which is part of my reason for calling the problem focus. As my very helpful boyfriend put it, the scenes I’m writing feel more like a description of what the character is doing rather than something he is actually doing. His actions and dialogue are forced.

There are several differences between the character and myself, and between this character and my other characters, that frequently make it difficult for me to shift gears. To sum up very briefly, Albert is a man (which clearly I am not), a scientist, and an inventor (again, totally un-me). He also lives in a completely fictional nineteenth century England-like country. If we met today, we’d probably have a lot to talk about, but very little in common.

But Kristin, you ask, what do those differences matter? You’re a writer, and you’re making him up; just make him do what you want.

It’s not that simple, though.

Think of writing third-person limited scenes like taking a photo with an old-fashioned 35 mm camera. (Remember those?) Imagine the character’s worldview like a colored filter over the lens; the character’s thoughts, background, and beliefs will shade every aspect of the scene. Every metaphor should be a metaphor that character would use. Everything you describe and all the scene-setting should reflect what the character would notice.

Once you’ve got your filter in place, it’s time to focus on the image. Focus too far back, and the character will be blurry, and he won’t be the primary image. Focus too close, and, well, I don’t know what the hell you’re looking at anymore. (It’s not a perfect metaphor.)

So, how do I diagnose the problem, and how do I fix it?

The diagnosis is tricky to describe. For me, it’s really just a gut feeling. I know I’m having trouble with the scene, and I know the character isn’t doing what I want. That’s usually my fault, not his. I’m forcing things on him that he wouldn’t do: I’ve left off the filter. Another way is to notice, on rereading, that you’re not up close enough. You’re setting the scene, but not through his eyes. You’re not focused on him and his thoughts.

The quickest way to fix the problem, in my humble opinion, is to write in first person for a little while. It’s hard, but if you force yourself to think like your character, the filter and focus will follow.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice thinking like a man. But if you’d like more information or suggestions on how to break into your character’s head, let me know.

(Note that Brandon Sanderson talks about this same issue in his post on stilted dialog.)

3 thoughts on “Finding Focus

  1. The best thing that I ever did for writing was taking a psychology class a few years back. Sure, it’s basic psych and it did not qualify me in any areas (I consistently made 70s on the tests. Which were take home. And Scantrons. I’m proud of myself for that one). I mention this class, though, because it taught me to figure out motivations of people, really get inside their heads more than ever. Figure out their purpose and motivation. Which looks like I’m just restating your problem.
    A good tool, I suppose, would be to look at other characters similar to them. Not all inventors were zany Doc Browns or… zany The Nutty Professor (though Murphy did a good job with that character by not making him zany). If you have Netflix, there is a film called “Time After Time” starring the fantastic Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells. It’s instant streaming, so you don’t have to wait for it. The movie is better than it has any right to be, but I recommend watching at least the first part of it (before the time travel) to study McDowell’s characterization of Wells (an inventor in, surprise, the Victorian Era). Perhaps that might be close to your inventor character, or at least help you find a common thread in your character and Wells’s psychology.
    As far as the man thing goes, don’t worry too much about it. Just write a character first, a man second.

    • Ooh, I will definitely be watching this movie.

      All good advice. I think I just occasionally get into moments of extreme self-consciousness when I feel insecure about my writing and that insecurity (and my own personality) tends to seep into the writing and the character himself. Watching the movie and looking at other characters will, I think, help me shut myself up and get back into the character’s head. Thanks!!

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