9 Ways to Use Point of View to Strengthen Your Story’s Characters

9 Ways to Use Point of View to Strengthen Your Story’s Characters

One of the author’s primary tools to create great characters is point of view (POV). The character or characters through whom the reader experiences your narrative will become the people they know best, and, if those characters are compelling, the friends they carry with them after the story is done.

As writers, we must consider how our approach to crafting point of view will influence the story being told, and in particular, how it will create the readers’ impression of character. (For a review of POV basics, including which POVs to use and first- versus third-person, check out Jason Black’s article.)

3 Keys to Character–and How Point of View Can Help

What makes a great character, and how can POV help you display those traits? You want to create characters who are:

1. Sympathetic

Readers root for the character in pursuit of his goals.

2. Believable

The character possesses traits, attitudes, and awareness that makes him seem real.

3. Compelling.

Readers are eager to follow the character’s journey

Great characters can begin in many ways. I build characters from the inside out, thinking about their goals, their fears, and what actions they’ll take because of those things.

Instead of focusing on superficial details, think about values, quirks, and personality traits. Consider the character’s social background, career, and relationships. Focus on what sets this character apart and what will help to engage your reader.

You can write up what you know about the character in paragraphs, a character sketch or worksheet, or just list the information.

6 Details to Bring Life to Your Character’s Point of View

What you know about your character should inform everything that character says, does, and senses in a given situation—and should be unique to that individual. When you write from that character’s point of view, this information will influence every choice you make, from what elements of a scene you describe, to which words you choose to describe them.

1. Goal

Why is the character here? What does he want, and how will he go about trying to get it? (If the character doesn’t want anything in the scene, it’s probably the wrong scene.)

2. Knowledge

The character’s level of understanding filters what he notices and how he observes it. A history major has a different view of the Washington Monument than a stone mason would—but both could be very interesting.

3. Selection

What interests your character in a given scene or moment? Selection is based on a variety of factors, including age, gender, backstory, occupation, and preoccupation (what’s on the character’s mind). A person who longs for a child might be drawn to playgrounds. A chiropractor might subconsciously diagnose other people when describing them.

4. Personal History

What does this scene mean to the character? What is his relationship to the other people present?

5. Attitude

How does the character feel about where he is, who he is with, and what is happening? Does the character’s attitude change during the scene? A fearful person will notice different things and use different language from someone who is bored.

6. Authorial Need

What key features, traits or clues do you, the author, need to convey? I put this one last for a reason. If you focus on what the character needs, wants, and sees in the scene, rather than what the author wants, you’ll achieve a more natural POV that will be more believable and engaging to the reader.

3 Important Considerations for Word Choice in Point of View

Whether you are writing in first-person or a close third person view, filter the scene through the experience of that individual POV by using precise word choices. Allow the character’s attitude to color everything in the moment.

1. Diction

How your character speaks, what words and concepts he employs, how long or complex his sentences might be.

2. Metaphor

Comparisons add resonance to a work, and are a great chance to show the character’s background and attitude.

3. Connotation

Shades of meaning that separate words with similar definitions showcase what the character is thinking (like:  skinny, lithe, slender, scrawny).

Being deliberate about these small choices can create a strong impression of that character’s unique view. You can also use contrasts between the readers’ expectations of character and what he reveals on the page to suggest deeper layers.

4 Red Flags to Watch for in Your Story’s Point of View

 These are a few stumbling blocks to delivering a clear POV:

1. Couching Language

Phrases such as he saw, she thought, they felt direct the reader outside the character’s perspective.

2. Head Hopping

Briefly showing a different character’s POV within a paragraph or scene, or revealing something the character wouldn’t know, will distract readers and distance them from the narrator.

3. Backstory

Lots of background included too early in a work feels artificial and slows the immediacy of the story at hand.

4. Withholding

If you need to keep secrets from the reader, you’ll need to switch POV or end the scene before that information would naturally arise for the POV character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your biggest challenge right now in mastering your story’s point of view? Tell me in the comments!

 

9 Ways to Use Point of View to Strengthen Your Story’s Characters

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About E.C. Ambrose | @ecambrose

E.C. Ambrose writes The Dark Apostle series, beginning with Elisha Barber (DAW, 2013), continuing with Elisha Magus, and Elisha Rex. As Elaine Isaak, she wrote The Singer's Crown and its sequels. Her how-to articles have appeared in The Writer magazine and online. A graduate of the Odyssey Speculative Fiction workshop, she is proud to return there to teach this summer. She has led workshops across the country. You do not want to be her hero.

Comments

  1. I never write or read third person stories, they are always dull. Third person has so many disadvantages, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy it.
    Of course there are some who say “But in first person, you’re imprisoned in one character!” How foolish they are. 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughts.

      I’d love top hear you say more about this. I find myself much more drawn to third person because it can give the illusion of objectivity (which first person doesn’t have), while still revealing the perspective of the narrator.

      First person, I often find distancing because it seems so subjective that it can be hard to be sympathetic to the narrator. There are certainly works with multiple first-person narrators, just as my current series is a tight third-person narration limited to one POV–so, as you point out, the number of voices need not be limited, if each one is distinct and serves a story purpose.

      • Thanks for your reply.
        First person can have as much objectivity as third person. I don’t understand why everybody says it can’t. And I hate objectivity because it turns stories into boring scientific papers 100% of the time.
        Also, it’s third person that kills sympathy and immersion, not first person. Basically, first person feels like an account or real events and is very emotional, intimate, and engaging. Third person feels fake and artifical: it constantly reminds me that I’m reading a fictional story, and a very boring one, because there’s no emotion and no voice.
        People love third person because it allows them to infodump more easily. And it shows! Every third person book consists of 90% annoying infodump and only 10% interesting stuff, which is usually dialogue – FIRST person!

        • Hi! I love these discussions :3
          I love your answer E.C. Ambrose
          Well Khitan, you probably think that about the omniscient narrator (In my opinion, this POV really bored me because “there’s no emotion and no voice” and give a lot of distance. )
          But the deep third person is a little different. You read like the third person (He stopped the bike) but there’s a lot of characters voice in that (He stopped his awesome super fast bike! ). But, infortunately, I see a lot of this and head hopping mixed.
          About the first person, I really didn’t read a lot of them to speak freely, but in my experience, I can’t write a first person book.
          :3 See you later

          • Welcome Sara, sorry for the late post.
            Deep third person feels like lazy writing to me, as if the writer wanted to write in first person but couldn’t manage it and had to use a cheap substitute instead.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Elaine!

  3. Thank you for an insightful and instructive post.

    Characters are fun things to explore. I’ve taken them to dinner or lunch and I’ve been taken to lunch by characters. I have conducted formal interviews and informal interviews. I’ve sat on back decks, visited in professional settings, gone to fancy restaurants, and met on running trails.

    The thing I’ve learned is that no two characters are alike and no two characters respond the same way to any of those methods. Some are very chatty and all I need to do is ask one question, then just sit back and listen.

    Some are very guarded and getting them to talk is like pulling teeth.

    One thing that applies to all of them is that every character will respond to other characters the same way they respond to me. The character who chats endlessly to me will also talk the ears off other characters.

    The character who is reticent with me will also be reticent with other characters.

    Putting those two characters together creates a level of automatic conflict that’s priceless!

    Thank you for the tips and guidelines.

    • Those are some great techniques–thanks for sharing!
      I have learned some interesting things in character interviews as well, but I haven’t been invited to anyone’s deck. Possibly because I’m not very nice to my characters, as a general rule.

      I think one reason these techniques can be helpful is that they allow you to really separate the character from yourself and view them through a different lens, watching their interaction and understanding their voice in order to better channel it onto the page.

  4. This post came at the perfect time. I’m currently in the middle of a draft review and questioning whether or not I want to take out a person’s POV. While it adds something the story, I’m not sure it’s necessary, so I was struggling. Like I said, perfect time for this post 🙂 Thanks~

  5. You make it sound so easy…ha ha. It isn’t, but these are great guidelines to follow. It helps to be reminded and have concrete goals to work towards. Thank you. I will definitely take this information with me on my journey of pulling together my second novel. This couldn’t have come at a better time!

  6. Very detailed article. I believe that this will really help. Thanks!

  7. I read every post here but don’t comment often. Currently I’m rewriting what will be my debut novel, in the sense, it will be my first to query. Whether it finds an agent or not, we’ll see, but it is the first long fiction I’ve written to the end.

    The authorial need strikes me most (Thank you!) ” focus on what the character needs, wants, and sees in the scene, rather than what the author wants”. Though I plot, I’m always surprised by how the characters lead my writing.

    My first page won a crit from Brenda Drake’s blog. It scathed but helped me immensely. I am guilty of couching language and the crit pointed this out. I’m paying close attention to what I read to learn how to fix this.

    I find Khitan’s comments interesting but I don’t agree. I find 1st POV annoying (unless it maserrfully executed) because as a reader I want some distance. With 3rd there is more room to close in and pan out. Inject thoughts in italics. It seems 1st is quite the rage in contemporary manuscripts while 3rd is the classic American story POV.

    • Distance is what I hate the most. I wish to get into the lead character’s head, which is only possible with first person. If I wish to observe said character from the outside, I simply install another first person POV. Problem solved.

  8. Thanks, Angie,

    I think one of the signs that you have developed strong characters is when they reveal new possibilities and seem to lead the way in directions you didn’t originally envision, but which are more in keeping with their own nature. While I am almost entirely a Plotter at this point (rather than a Pantser), the plot definitely evolves as the characters become more fully-fleshed through the text.

    One interesting remark I heard on the first vs. third question was from author Melissa Scott, who remarked that first person feels closer *to the author* but to the reader, it can, in fact, be distancing. It is literally the voice of the character telling the entire story–which is a view we rarely get of other people. We are used to the “I” being ourselves, and to watching the actions of others in the third person, ascribing motives to them based on our knowledge and observation, in the same way that the third person narrative voice can supply that information.

    Some authors create very vivid portraits in first person, others in third–and I think the nature of the character and of the story you want to tell are important to making the decision. I really admire authors like Peter S. Beagle, or the newcomer Randee Dawn, who have the ability to inhabit a first-person voice or third, depending on the need of the tale at hand–and to use both to strong effect.

    Good luck with your writing–sounds like the critique gave you some good pointers!

  9. Susan Spence says:

    I found out that there can be other consequences writing in the first person. I wrote a novel about a woman’s difficult relationship with her mother. Even though it is nothing like the relationship I have with my own mother, it freaked my mom out when she read it. It took a second reading before she was able to separate the “I” in my story from me.

    • I find this is a particular issue in poetry, where the work is assumed to be more personal than in fiction, but yes, there is always some assumption of transference between the author and the characters. Just wait ’til you kill of a character who has a name similar to someone you know. . .

      thanks for reading!

  10. Andrew Lacey says:

    Wonderful thoughts on first and second person narrative! I personally favour third person because, as E. C. Ambrose says, it is in many ways more like real life, we get to watch the actions of others in the third person. I think that there is much to be said for first person too, it allows us to really empathise with the thoughts of a character, but third gives a more informative story. I suppose that is comes down to personal opinion, a great deal.
    Is it just me, or are most of the first person stories written in the modern age, while the ‘classics’ are in third?

  11. Thanks for this post! A great writing teacher I knew once suggested turning out a character’s pockets – literally! What you find in there (a train ticket stub, a receipt for a bottle of vodka, a child’s hairclip) might help unlock an elusive character, and also help in bringing their POV to life as you describe above. Sheena x

    • I once was at a child’s party where a man reached into his wallet for something and a few metal collar stays fell out. He always had them on hand in case he needed them, and I wondered what that life must be like–very different from mine.

      A similar exercise is to describe in great detail an object the character always has–when, where and how did they acquire it? Why do they keep it? What does it mean to them, and what might it suggest to the reader?

      thanks for reading!

  12. Good afternoon

    I was wondering which book to read and use first: Outlining your novel or Structuring your novel. I have an idea but don’t have a clue where to begin.

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for your interest! Outlining Your Novel is more about brainstorming and organizing ideas. It covers broader story principles like discovering your characters and setting and figuring out your plot.

      Structuring Your Novel is about the nitty-gritty of story, scene, and sentence structure.

      If you plan to read both eventually, I recommend starting with Outlining, since it’s more foundational. But if you’re only going to read one, I recommend Structuring, since its principles are ultimately more crucial to successful storytelling.

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