The Blogging Continues: Using PoV in Setting for Characterization and Mood
Me again, Mike Myers, senior editor of British Fantasy Award nominee Grimdark Magazine https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/. I sometimes write a blog about the writing craft, and this is it. Thanks for checking it out.
Last post I promised to take a different look at setting and point of view (PoV). There are times when writers will turn the entire setting description into an expression of the PoV character's state of mind. This can be a very effective device for showing readers a character’s mental state as well as creating mood for a scene. For this post, I dig back into Abercrombie's Best Served Cold (which I finally finished, and I've now read all six First Law novels, woooo!!!). Again, I can't emphasize enough: If you enjoy writing grim fantasy and you want see what is looks like when the craft is done well, Abercrombie's writing is a great place to start, especially if you prefer third-person PoV. (GRRM, too, of course.) For first-person (usually my preference) it's hard to beat Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire or Red Queen's War series. These two guys just nail it (or they have amazing editors). I don't expect to give away any spoilers here, but if you really don't want to know anything at all about Best Served Cold, then you might be in the wrong place.
A little backstory: One of the main plot threads in Best Served Cold is about Caul Shivers. He has come south to Styria to start over and become a better man. The excerpt below is taken from a scene just past the halfway point of the book. The action is building toward the climax. Monza Murcatto, the main character of the book, has taken revenge on several people and has only a couple victims left before her rampage is complete. In this excerpt, Shivers has just been tortured and had his eye burned out by Duke Salier's henchpeople, which is a turning point in Shivers’s character arc. He has several nightmares and then awakes. The narrator tells us: “Shivers weren’t himself. Or maybe he finally was.” He goes looking for Murcatto in Salier’s palace.
The long hall pulsed, glowed, swam like a rippling pool. Sunlight burned through the windows, stabbing and flashing at him through a hundred hundred glittering squares of glass. The statues shone, smiled, sweated, cheered him on. He might’ve had one eye less than before, but he saw things clearer. The pain had swept away all his doubts, his fears, his questions, his choices. All that shit had been dead weight on him. All that shit was weakness, and lies, and a waste of effort. He’d made himself think things were complicated when they were beautifully, awfully simple. His axe had all the answers he needed.
The first thing I notice in this excerpt, of which setting takes up only the first two sentences (short and sweet), is the number of action verbs used to describe the hall: “pulsed,” “glowed,” “swam,” “burned,” “stabbing,” “rippling,” “flashing,” “shone,” “smiled,” “sweated,” and at last, “cheered him on.” Of the thirty-six words in the setting for this scene, eleven are some kind of verb form. We know the hallway and the other setting elements are not actually doing these actions -- a hallway can't swim. We are seeing everything from Shivers's PoV. Some of the verbs, like “pulsed” and “glowed,” “flashing” and “swam,” are dizzying and perplexing, showing his newly awakened state might not be a very stable one. Others, like “burned” and “stabbing” are brutal, indicating the new direction Shivers might take in becoming himself again. The statues, which we know from earlier in the chapter are of heroes, emperors, and gods – powerful people, smile at his awakening, sweat with his energy, and at last “cheer” on this new, crazy, violent Shivers, who throughout the second half of the book will “see things [himself mostly] clearer,” give up on being a better man, and return to his old, real self, for better or worse.
Another thing to notice here is that the new less-improved Shivers wakes up in bright sunlight shining through “glittering” glass, flashing, and setting the hall aglow. This helps create the mood for his new beginning. It is not a dark beginning, not blinding despite his lost eye. The loss of his eye figuratively and literally enlightens him. He can see “clearer” who he is, and the “hundred hundred glittering squares of glass” can represent the endless bright possibilities that await his newly enlightened self. It is an uplifting, though somewhat unsettling, beginning.
This bright, shining, clear (and very brief) setting makes Shivers reflect upon himself, his “pain,” “doubts,” “fears,” all the “shit” that resulted from his trying to be a better man, which he now knows he can not be, should not be, and trying to be has been “lies” and “wasted effort.” He knows, realizes at last, that his axe has the answers, as it always did before. To become himself again, he must rely on the power, strength, and violence that has made him who he is. After passing through the hallway, he immediately… Ha! Not telling.
In two sentences describing the setting of a hallway, Abercrombie has completely changed Shivers’s world. Equally important, there’s no wasted verbiage. Perhaps the hallway has a lovely carpet, embroidered in the Gurkish style. Abercrombie doesn’t show us that because 1) it’s not important to Shivers’s transition and 2) it’s too damn bright in the hallway to even take notice of it. Our attention is completely attracted to the sun shining on the glittering glass and the statues. Don’t add more setting than is necessary to create an image for the reader and get your point across. As Elmore Leonard said in his 10 Rules of Writing: “Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Well, that’s probably enough for now. If you have read all the way to here, I thank you very much. If you have any comments or questions about this post or its contents, or you just have a writing question, please leave contact me through my website. It will keep me from thinking about what my daughter is doing at her new (and first) boyfriend’s house all afternoon. Sorry there’s no comments section on the blog. There’s something funky about the way wix.com websites implement comments that I have not yet figured out.
Until next time, I am available to edit your writing projects, and I enjoy the work. You can contact me through my website <sffeditor.com>, by email <mike.myers.editor(at)gmail.com>, or at my Facebook page www.facebook.com/SFFEditor. I’d love to help you make your writing as excellent as it can be.