Making The Most Of Character Perspective

Making The Most Of Character Perspective

Last week I talked about the different perspectives, or points of view, available to writers. I covered my personal pros and cons for each and touched on the fact that they balance out pretty well, depending on the purpose of your project.

But since the chosen point of view often sets the tone and atmosphere for a novel, chapter or scene, simply choosing between first and third person isn’t enough. Unless your novel follows a single character through the entire story, you’ll have to ask yourself who should narrate each portion of the story as you move through each draft. And it’s not an easy choice.

How to Choose a Narrator

The question of who should narrate a scene is one of the hardest a writer has to answer. Even if you follow one character through the entire story, you need to make sure that character is up to the task of carrying the reader. As soon as you have extra perspectives to choose from, the choice gets complicated. How do you know whose voice deserves to dominate?

The first and most important question to ask is: which character will have the most impactful experience during the scene? Which character stands to lose or gain the most as a result of what’s about to happen? I always give the nod to the character who is going to receive the biggest gut-punch so the reader can experience it with them.

But a single question doesn’t always reveal a definitive choice. When I can’t choose based on emotional impact, I ask myself: which character has information that will affect the events taking place? If a character has a secret related to the upcoming incident, they might be the best choice of narrator.

Another useful question is: which character is most likely to act? You generally want the reader in the thick of things. But if you want the reader to view a particular confrontation from the sidelines, you might choice to avoid using the participants to narrate.

Sometimes, it helps to look at the question from a more mechanical perspective. Which character’s plot arc is most affected by the scene in question? You probably want to follow them through any major twists.

Of course, you can always change your mind during the next pass, when you know the story better. So don’t despair if no clear candidate emerges during the first draft!

Developing Character Voices

I mentioned during my pov primer that it’s important to develop a unique character voice for each narrator. First, it keeps the story fresh and interesting. Second, it helps the reader easily distinguish between narrators within a couple of sentences. And third, it adds a ton of depth to your characters and their development.

It’s hard enough for a writer to develop their own voice, so developing individual character voices may seem like a monumental task. But don’t despair. Making your characters sound different isn’t as complicated as it seems.

If you consider the people you know, it’s probably easy to distinguish between them without focusing on their face or voice. Because each person has a unique perspective and mannerisms that converge to express who they are. We can create similar combinations for our characters by asking some simple questions.

Start with your character’s personality traits. An emotional character is more likely to focus on the emotions of a scene, to react without thinking, or to ignore the potential consequences of their actions. Where as an investigative character might pay less attention to spoken words and more attention to actions. They may also notice more about their surroundings. Logical characters may seem cold and uncaring to emotionally focused characters (which can be a good source of tension).

But personality is only the first piece of the puzzle. There are many aspects that will shape a character’s opinions and behaviors. Another big one is their profession. A police officer might naturally take notice of places that seem dangerous or secure. Where as a thief might assess how they could break into something, even if they don’t intend to follow through with it.

Enhancing Character Voices

Characters can also be shaped by their hobbies and personal interests. A character who is interested in gardening might often draw attention to plants as they pass (my mother-in-law does this). A character who loves to play chess may approach conflicts or challenges in the same way they would play a chess game. In other words; a character’s skills and expertise will influence both how they view the world and how they solve problems.

Finally, consider your character’s background. Personal experiences often shape future actions. A character who was bullied, for example, may become quiet and withdrawn. An introverted character may spend crowd scenes on the sidelines, watching others interact. An extroverted character might try to jump into any conversation they consider remotely interesting. Characters with certain traits may consider characters with other traits annoying, which may color their mental or verbal tones when they interact.

Culture is another important factor. A character who grew up in the mountains of a fantasy world might have completely different traditions than one who grew up on the plains of the same world. They might use different terms to describe similar things, speak different idioms and use different types of curses.

Education is another factor that can shape a character’s voice. Highly educated characters might use larger words than a character who grew up on the street – especially if you want them to sound snooty. A friend of mine recently ran a few chapters of one of my novels through ProWritingAid. It flagged many of the paragraphs I had written from the perspective of an Artificial Intelligence as overly complex and suggested I use simpler phrasing. But since I wanted my Artificial Intelligence to sound complex and non-human, I considered that a good thing!

How Can Editors Help?

Since this is ultimately an editing guide, I want to cover how editors can help with perspective issues. Often, it’s easier for an outside party to note discrepancies because they lack the author’s intimate knowledge of the narrative.

First and foremost, be on the lookout for filter words such as feel/felt, see/saw, hear/heard, and sometimes touch/touched. As I mentioned previously, filter words can be particularly destructive to the first person perspective, when you want the reader directly in the character’s head. You can’t eliminate every instance of these words, but it’s a good idea to focus directly on the senses whenever possible.

Editors should also focus on weeding out head-hopping, which often crops up in the third person perspective. Head-hopping is anything that feels like it’s written from the perspective of a character other than the narrator. Even traditionally published authors often fall prey to head-hopping, so don’t despair if you can’t catch every instance.

There are a few tricks writers can use to convey outside information without hopping between narrators. One is to save pertinent personal details until the relevant character becomes the narrator, then work them into the inner monologue. Another is to use expressions and body language to convey the thoughts and feelings of non-narrators. Stephen King is particularly adept at this.

Finally, if you spot an inconsistency in a character’s voice, draw attention to it. Word choice tweaks are one of the most valuable pieces of feedback an editor can offer. If a line sounds out of place for that particular character, suggest something that brings it into alignment. If thoughts or feelings seem to be bleeding between characters, bring it to the writer’s attention so they can fix it.

Basically, take note of what the writer is trying to do and enhance it!

2 Replies to “Making The Most Of Character Perspective”

  1. Thank you for well-written, valuable content that I can use right now. Some of what you discussed points directly to a scene that’s been bugging me, but wasn’t sure why. Thank you for clarifying that for me and for the great information.

    1. I’m so glad I was able to help! :D I’ve had the same thing happen – where reading someone else’s thoughts shook free the problem I was having – and it’s such a relief when you can finally see the way forward!

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