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Writing non-character-centered stories

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Nov 28, 2013.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    When I was a kid I was a big fan of real-time strategy games, the kind where you build up an army and have it crush your enemies and sack their towns. Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Rise of Nations, and the Total War series are the best examples of this genre in my opinion. These games have instilled in me an interest in ancient warfare, and after recently playing Rise of Nations again, I feel like writing a battle story that would incorporate real-time strategy elements.

    For example, one common element in real-time strategy games is an elevated point of view you might call aerial or bird's eye. The camera doesn't shoot through the eyes of any one particular character, but instead hovers overhead. However, it can still zoom in on individual platoons or zoom out to give you a view of the whole battlefield. Here are a couple of screenshots illustrating this:

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    It might seem that this aerial viewpoint is equivalent to the so-called third person omniscient in literature, but I submit there is a critical difference. One of the most commonly cited problems with third-person omniscient is the phenomenon of head-hopping (i.e. switching between the viewpoints of individual characters), but this would not exist in an aerial viewpoint since you're not actually going into any individuals' minds. You can see them fight, hear them talk, and maybe see their facial expressions and body language if the camera zooms in really close, but you don't actually have to worry about their internal psychologies. Instead you can just enjoy the larger view of the battle in all its fiery and blood-soaked spectacle.

    I'm sure this can be done, but since I would be taking such a detached view of this story's characters, I still feel it might pose a challenge to keep the story engaging. The conventional wisdom among today's writers is that only character-centric stories can engage readers. Personally I can enjoy character-centric stories as much as anyone else (they've constituted most of the books I've read after all), but I submit that there are more ways to make a story interesting than fixating on individual characters. For example, I could write a lot of vivid sensory descriptions to bring the battle to glorious and horrific life in my readers' imaginations.

    Any thoughts on this approach?
     
  2. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

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    I'm sure there are some who would appreciate this, but I need the insight of a character to keep me rooted. Otherwise, I'm not sure I could be invested enough in one side or the other to maintain interest. Plus, I like feeling as if I'm taking part in the event, and that would be very difficult without a character viewpoint to latch onto.

    That said, I think it's worth trying. Give it a shot!
     
  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Those are good points you raise there. I guess the issue of investment in a certain side could be addressed by making the other side much more barbarous in behavior, but you might be right that focusing on one character would better immerse the reader in the event.

    I guess my problem is that I naturally tend to think in pictures, and some of the images that come to my mind take a more scenic or aerial viewpoint than a single character's field of vision would allow.
     
  4. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

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    It might work if you could make each faction it's own "character." Weather can be a character, for example. It's that generalization you get when you hear about Mongolian warriors or Roman legions or Visigoths. Each are unique in their tactics, look, and motivations. Give each group it's own characteristics and make them distinct in a way that sets them apart. They become a collective unit that way.

    I hope this makes sense. It's hard for me to explain but I think it could work this way for short battle sequences.
     
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  5. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    It's not my style, but sometimes the only way to find out if something works is to try it.

    So start writing!
     
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Here's a short story that kind of does this, and yes as mentioned above, the faction takes on a big picture personality. It's a story where an ant colony is the main character.

    E. O. Wilson: Trailhead : The New Yorker

    With out a character perceived or literal, that high level view of things can turn into an encyclopaedia entry if you're not careful. Another thing you could look at are myths. Some don't go into deep immersion into a character's head. It's been a long while since I've read any Greek Myths, but my gut is telling me that those myths don't go into deep immersion.
     
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  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Used to be some old line science fiction that did this, mostly of the short variety.

    However, the usual intent was to illustrate this or that scientific effect.
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    The key would be getting the reader to care about the battle's outcome. If you're clever about it, and choose the right images, perhaps you can do just that. I would think this would need to be a relatively short story, as ThinkerX said.

    An example of what I mean from a writing quote:

    “You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.”
    -Richard Price

    That quote is more geared toward a Showing vs. Telling philosophy, but I think it illustrates a point. Choose the right, powerful images and let them do some of the work for you. I think you can engage a reader for a certain period of time without character if the details you focus on are both vivid and carry some emotional weight all their own.

    It's certainly worth an effort.
     
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I have just started writing the story, but after the first couple of paragraphs I'm already starting to feel less comfortable with my choice of PoV. Somehow it feels too detached and distant, as if I can't describe anything in great detail because I've zoomed out so far. Furthermore, it does seem that tighter limits on PoV can provide a valuable filter for which details I need to note.
     
  10. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    Something along the lines of the Iliad might serve as a good starting point. I do remember Homer bringing the camera's focus to certain elements during the battle scenes, if you will, but that there were other scenes entirely that were done in a "god's view" fashion. Those bits of story were more detached from the human characters, but were interesting to see how the battle was shaping up or where an interesting bit of story was beginning to unfold.

    If you're doing objective 3rd person omniscient, it's going to feel removed from the action, and thus your characters. It might serve you better as a device you use when describing battle and its immediate after effects. Stay focused tight on your MCs right up until stuff goes *boom*, then pan out and lose the emotion for the duration of the battle and let emotion and tightness of POV creep back in.

    Disclaimer: I have not been in battle.

    I would believe a battle scene done in this fashion. I would believe a character being completely out of it, completely well Vulcan, immediately after a battle while they're processing through what just happened. It might be something they see out of the corner of their eye, something that in any other event wouldn't even be on their radar that they just totally react to.
     
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  11. Firekeeper

    Firekeeper Troubadour

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    Definitely worth the effort, but it's something I could never do. I'm a totally character-driven writer, if you don't like my characters you won't like my work. In fact, I'm often forced to find plots for characters I create, not the other way around.
     
  12. UnknownCause

    UnknownCause Dreamer

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    This. Is a good idea.
    However, maybe you could view the war [or whatever conflict you've chosen] from the viewpoint of a soldier, or maybe the enemy. Nonetheless, this is an interesting approach, and a very unique one at that. Go for it! [And please post some parts of the book as many of us, maybe not admitting it, would like to see it]
     
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