Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Before I begin a conversation about Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, I should make a bold admission: I am not a geek. However, I married one and gave birth to his two clones. I am mired in geekdom, which served me well reading this collection of short stories. In her blog, Alvina Ling who edited this book for Little, Brown says, “Sure, some of the stories speak mainly to hard-core geeks, and non-geeks might not get all the references. But that's kind of the point. This is a book for geeks, by geeks; but it's also a book for past geeks and future geeks.” 

So there were references I did not get, but with assistance from my trusty coterie of resident geeks, I was able to figure most things out, and who knows? Perhaps I am a future geek. Since reading the book I have invested in a DVD collection of the BBC’s original Dr. Who. It’s a start.

But on to a discussion of craft! The story I’ll focus on here is the first one in the book, “Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way,” which was written by the brainchildren behind this book, who are also its editors, Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci.This is the story of a forbidden romance between Arizhel, a Klingon warrior and Thomas, a Jedi knight, who meet at a sci-fi convention. It is written in two first-person viewpoints, and those characters are distinctly different from one another right from their opening lines:

“I awake tangled up in scratchy sheets with my head pounding and the taste of cheap alcohol and Tabasco still in my mouth. The spirit gum I used to attach my nose ridge and eyebrows sticks to the sheets as I roll over. Immediately, a wave of nausea makes me regret moving and I try to lie as still as I can until it passes.” (p. 1)

“A Jedi is never supposed to give over his passions; he is always supposed to be in command. But last night, at some point between Coke Pluses, Master Sven must have spiked mine with a little bit of rum. My being such a lightweight might be a contributing factor in the mess I find myself in this morning.” (p. 4)

When writing in multiple viewpoints, the writer faces an additional challenge—that of making the multiple voices ring true and clear and different enough from one another that the reader always knows who’s head she is in. I would argue that the reader should be able to close her eyes, pick a page at random, and by reading no more than a sentence, be able to identify which character viewpoint is the active one.

Perhaps it is easier to create distinct first-person viewpoints when writing as co-authors. Look at books like Armageddon Summer, by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan (also a Geektastic contributor) and Rachel Cohn, in which the team of authors have succeeded in creating two clearly distinguishable character voices.

Easier, perhaps, but there are plenty of examples of extremely well done multiple viewpoint stories written by a solo author. I think of books like Witness by Karen Hesse, or the fabulous picture book Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne. In both cases, the author creates a cast of easily recognizable characters through the use of language, character attributes, gesture – all those things that combine to create voice. In Browne’s case, visuals add to the distinctions between character perspectives, but in the end, even without those things, the story would succeed because the voice of each character is clear and sharp and different from all the others.

Why, you might ask, am I even discussing this? Isn’t it obvious that the characters in a multiple viewpoint story must be distinct? Yes, but I have read stories, both published and unpublished, where the voices are so similar as to become indistinguishable. As the reader, I get lost, because the uniqueness of voice is what grounds us in a character and keeps us firmly rooted in his story. If the voices are too similar, the characters start to seem like one person and the story becomes confusing.

It is not enough to have greatly different details about each character–-hair color, eye color, gender, problem. The way each character speaks, the essence of him, must be different from every other character in the story for a multiple viewpoint novel, or short story, to work. Not sure yours is working? Flip to a random page, read a sentence, and see if it is instantly clear whose head you are in.

StorySleuths Tip #1: When writing in multiple viewpoints, be certain that each character’s voice is unique and distinct.