Kress Writes Fiction with Logic and Flair

kress_review_02092017Nancy Kress. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.  Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the dividing lines between fiction and nonfiction writing shows itself in the indirect way that fiction writers express themselves, “showing” rather than “telling” the reader. Showing a characteristic or emotion subtly transforms the reader from an observer into a participant in the story. Depending on whose head the reader occupies, we arrive at the “point of view” (POV) that the author wants to use, something that nonfiction writers may treat casually or simply ignore. In her book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress offers us a guide to this subtly in three parts—character, emotion, and point of view.

Character. Kress sees character defining fiction because character differences shape plots, settings, and writing styles, even if the influence cuts both ways (2-3). These subtle influences require that the writer adopt different perspectives, that of the writer, the character, the reader, and the critic, but at different times (3-4, 221). She sees four sources for interesting characters: “yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about, and pure imagination.” (5)

An important aspect of character is whether they are “stayers” or “changers”. Kress writes: “Changers are characters who alter in significant ways as a result of the events of your story.” By contrast, stayers may be heroes, like James Bond, who remain remarkably unflappable over time and always get the villain or may be tragically flawed and “come to grief because of their blindness.” (10) Likewise, motivations that characters exhibit may either be unchanging or change over the course of the story. Thus, four basic character/plot patterns emerge from the interaction of personality and motivation:

  1. Personality stable, motivation stable;
  2. Personality stable, motivation changes;
  3. Personality changes, motivation stable; and
  4. Personality changes, motivation changes (67).

The key to any change in personality or motivation is to make it believable.

Emotion. Kress sees emotion derived “from two other critical concepts: motivation and backstory” where “motivation means that someone wants something” (35-36) and backstory explains why. The backstory can be given in: brief detail, an inserted paragraph, a flashback or an expository dump (39). Motivation gets interesting when a character has conflicting or mixed motivations that help define character (52-54).

Expressing emotion is tricky because characters differ in ethnicity, family background, region, gender, education, and circumstances (106-108). In view of these differences, writing dialogue is tricky—we do not speak the same and we reveal emotions to just anyone. Because many people are uptight about expressing emotion, Kress cites several occasions that might allow emotional dialogue to proceed, like keeping a journal, writing a letter, talking to a pet, therapist, or priest (114-115).  Another way to open up emotions is to infer them through the use of metaphors and symbols (120-121, 124).

In her inventory of emotions, Kress highlight frustration as important in plot development and authenticity in character development. Kress writes:

“Because frustration is such an important emotion in fiction, how well you portray it can make the difference between characters that seem real and those that seem cardboard.” (150)

Kress sees: “four modes of conveying emotion: action, dialogue, bodily sensations, and character’s thoughts” (46) which implies that frustration must too be displayed in various modes.

Point of View. Because we are only really privy to our own emotions, fiction fascinates us because we get to experience someone else’s (158) and writers get to choose both which character’s POV is highlighted and how much story time it gets. Kress suggests these criteria in choosing a POV character:

  • “Who will be hurt by the action? . . .
  • Who can be present at the climax? . . .
  • Who gets most of the good scenes? . . .
  • What will provide an interesting outlook on the story? . . .
  • Whose head are you most interested in inhabiting during this story?” (160-161)

After choosing a POV character, the next step is to decide how the author will appear in the narration—“first person, third person, omniscient, or (rarely) the ‘novelty’ points of view: second, plural first, plural third, and epistolary.” (163)

While most of these POVs are well known, in the case of the third person, which is most common, Kress further delves into the question of distance—close third, medium-distance third, and distant third—which deals with the level of intimacy that the author presumes. (185) Close third allows the author to read the character’s thoughts, almost like first person, while distant third views the character as external and more formal. (188) Middle-distance third remains somewhere inbetween. The clincher is that the author can move between these three categories, although too much jumping around is confusing. (190) Kress suggests sticking with one perspective per scene. (194-195)

Nancy Kress is a writing instructor with several writing books[1] and a novelist, specializing in science fiction and fantasy. Awards that her books have won include:

“six Nebulas (for ‘Out of All Them Bright Stars,’ ‘Beggars in Spain,’ ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison,’ ‘Fountain of Age,’ ‘After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,’ and ‘Yesterday’s Kin’), two Hugos (for ‘Beggars in Spain’ and ‘The Erdmann Nexus’), a Sturgeon (for ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE).” [2]

Her most recent degrees are from the State University of New York at Brockport, where she had earned an M.S. in education (1977) and an M.A. in English (1979).

Nancy Kress’ book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, is a how-to-book for fiction writers. Nonfiction writers, like myself, can also benefit both from becoming better informed about descriptive writing and from learning to write tighter stories, which appear in most nonfiction writing. Kress’ writing is accessible, a joy to read, and displays a wonderful knowledge of classical fiction writing.


Kress, Nancy. 2004. Dynamic Characters. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Kress, Nancy. 2011. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

[1] Other than this book, she has written Dynamic Characters (2004) and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (2011).


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