I’m pleased to welcome Nik Morton today with an insightful guest blog about character and point of view. He offers us an extract from his latest novel, The Tehran Text, to illustrate his point, too.
Nik is a very experienced author with twenty books to his name. He is also an editor, illustrator and Ex Royal Navy. His Tana Standish ‘Psychic Spy’ novels are published by Crooked Cat: so far we have The Prague Papers and The Tehran Text, with more to come. They are spy thrillers in the style of Ian Fleming and Len Deighton, but with an extra twist. You’ll be shaken and stirred. Click on the links or book covers to purchase these exciting novels.
Thanks for inviting me, Jeff. If I may, I’d like to talk about place and point of view in genre fiction.
The mantra is to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ when writing. The reason being that by simply telling the reader, the reader isn’t involved, isn’t close to the characters. If the reader views everything through a protagonist’s eyes – as in ‘show’ – then we tend to immerse ourselves more in the character.
Of course it isn’t always possible to show everything through a particular protagonist’s eyes – sometimes you have to resort to the omniscient point of view, much in the way that a film director will track in a scene until homing in on the character of interest. At that point, we become involved with the actor and less so the scene. This can apply in certain scene shifts in a novel, too. Here’s an example from The Tehran Text (Crooked Cat Publishing) which is set in 1978:
Special Psychiatric Hospital No.121, Kzyl-Orda in Kazakhstan was situated within the confines of the prison and a white brick wall surrounded it, topped with rows of barbed wire. Armed guards were perched in their watchtowers, their automatic weapons always loaded.
These hospitals were under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – the MVD – rather than the Ministry of Health. The MVD’s responsibilities were wide-ranging – uncovering and investigating certain categories of crime, apprehending criminals, supervising the internal passport system, maintaining public order, combating public drunkenness, supervising parolees, managing prisons and labour camps, providing fire protection and controlling traffic.
Doctor Wolf Schneider wasn’t a psychiatrist working for the MVD but a reluctant patient, his seventeen square metre cell shared with five others. He looked older than sixty-four, partly due to the left side of his face being one great red weal from an electric burn sustained three years ago. His thyroidal eyes glared, the stare more pronounced due to thick-lensed spectacles held together with surgical tape.
Outside the cell and along the corridor was the toilet, a cesspit comprising four holes in the ground and two taps. After a few days in the place, he stopped noticing the constant pervading smell of faeces and urine. He had no idea how long he’d been here. Memory played tricks – drugs, beatings and perpetual light didn’t help, either. This was the third SPH he had been to, since they attempted to fix his body after the disaster at Dobranice.
Criticism of the system would often condemn you to such a prison. Or failure. This was the humane side of the Soviet. Think yourself lucky, Schneider told himself. In Stalin’s and the Führer’s day, it was the firing squad. Now, if you failed, you needed psychiatric help.
“Prisoner DBR-14!” shouted a guard outside and thudded a fist twice on the metal door. The sound reverberated in the cell and everyone gasped.
Schneider flinched, more used to feeling those fists against his puny flesh.
“Prisoner DBR-14!” the guard repeated. Keys jangled and turned in the lock.
That’s me, Schneider realised. “Yes, I am here!” he shouted, though it came out like a plaintive squeak. Idiots! Where else would I be?
As the door swung wide, the other patients edged away along the wall, vying with each other to melt into the two corners furthest from the entrance.
The Ukrainian was as big as an ox and with as much intelligence, thought Schneider. All the more reason to fear him; it was an effort to control his bladder at sight of the man. The unshaven orderly stood, piggy eyes darting from one patient to the other, seeming to relish the discomfort his very presence caused. “You have a visitor, Prisoner DBR-14!” he sneered.
He was about to say, “Me?” when he bit his tongue. Only speak if asked to.
Shoulders hunched, bald head gleaming in the constant illumination from the strip light above, Schneider hobbled forward. The replacement kneecaps on both his legs might have worked adequately in normal living conditions, but here they simply seized up and now every step was agony.
The orderly almost filled the cell’s doorway so Schneider had to squeeze past and received the full blast of the man’s bad breath and rancid body odour.
The door clanged shut behind him with a deafening clamour and then he was thrust to the left, along the corridor. “Get a move on, you don’t want to keep your visitor waiting!” snarled his guard, painfully thumping his palm into the small of Schneider’s back.
Keeping his head bowed, Schneider shambled forward, trying to ignore the repetitive impatient smack of the orderly’s wooden stick against his boot.
Visitors usually meant trouble. The inquiry board investigating the Dobranice incident had grilled him repeatedly in Chernyakhovsk in the Kaliningrad region; he’d lost three teeth that time. This brute behind him had claimed four more. Now when he spoke – which was rarely, just to hear his own voice most times – it was with a whistling sound.
His body shuddered as he was pushed into a familiar room – the interrogation chamber.
Seated at the solitary desk was a Lieutenant of the GRU – a woman with copper-coloured hair cut short in layers. Her grey-mottled combat fatigues seemed anaemic, quite dull in contrast to her reddish-brown complexion. Thin lips peeled from a cruel mouth and revealed yellow teeth. If that was a smile, he didn’t think he was going to enjoy this interview. Then again, he could rarely recall a pleasant one.
“Come, comrade doctor,” she said in a husky voice. “Please sit. We have much to talk about.”
Hesitantly, he shuffled to the empty wooden ladder-backed chair bolted to the floor.
“My name is Lidiya Aksakov,” she said.
He looked into almond-shaped eyes coloured a weathered nut brown. Eyes that held no warmth. In those heady far-off days of the Third Reich he’d known several Nazi women with eyes like that. Even he had steered clear of them. “I am Wolf Schneider,” he began then flinched as he heard a movement behind. He screwed up his eyes, expecting the blow from the orderly’s stick, but it never came. Out of the corner of his eye, he risked a look and noticed that the woman Aksakov had raised a peremptory hand.
“Prisoner DBR-14 may use his name while we talk,” she explained firmly.
Schneider released a sigh of relief as he heard the guard return to the door. He felt moisture pricking the corners of his eyes but managed to control himself. Then her next words seemed to increase the rate of his heartbeat and pulse and inflamed the ugly red weal; it began to throb.
“I want you to tell me all about Tana Standish,” she said.
* * *
The scene ends on an ominous note or two. Firstly, if we’ve read The Prague Papers, we’ll recognise Schneider from that episode in psychic spy Tana Standish’s life (1975); and secondly, we will be fearful for the British spy because we don’t know what Aksakov is up to, though knowing it can’t bode well for Tana.
Ideally, the reader will be intrigued by the presence of Aksakov and want to learn more (this is only the beginning of chapter 3, after all). Later, the relationship between Schneider and Aksakov will evolve, though an air of menace will never be far off.
And in the time-honoured way we scene shift to somewhere else, and another protagonist in jeopardy.
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THE TEHRAN TEXT
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