- Books, Literature, and Writing
Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps to Writing Successful Fiction - Character and POV
1. Establish Characterization
2. Reveal Character
3. Change character for good or bad
If you become enamored with your plot twists and turns, you risk creating characters "beyond belief." Your character can be a Terminator or a talking Sunfish and still be believable if their actions make sense. If our meek sunfish suddenly acts like a shark only to serve a plot twist, then Mr. Sunfish is no longer believable.
On the other hand, if Mr. Sunfish has shown shark like characteristics lurking in his complex character, then we might understand his sudden shift in behavior. Likewise, your Terminator probably won’t don a tutu unless it was programmed by a ballet dancer (or you’re writing a Saturday Night Live skit).
In both plot-led and character-led stories, you must have sympathetic, three-dimensional characters.
- The reader must care about your lead character (usually the protagonist). "What will she do next?"
- The reader must recognize something of themselves in the character. "I would’ve done the same thing!"
- Or something they wish for themselves. "I’d love to be that smart and assertive. Maybe I could be."
- The reader must identify with the nice characters. "Normally, I wouldn’t be that nice, but under those circumstances, I could be."
- The reader must identify with the evil characters. "Wow! He’s a bastard. But I can sort of see why."
- Even pure evil has identifiable human characteristics. Readers must at least understand the evil logic. In responding, your protagonist must act as a fully developed, complex, three-dimensional character.
Surface characteristics. What does your character look like? What does she do for a living? What’s her job? Her hair and eye color? Be specific early on, but avoid 19th century (pre-motion picture) long-winded Charles Dickens descriptions. Limit your information, especially when describing physical appearance. The reader will fill in details. Your job is to provide specific words that trigger you reader’s imagination.
Warning: While you may think of this as a writer-reader interaction, a conspiratorial agreement to "suspend disbelief," 99% of the responsibility falls on you the writer. All the more reason for you to get every word right. Poetry is a good model for precise word choice and arrangement (diction and syntax).
What are her internal struggles? Is she basically kind? Or is she a tortured soul? What motivates her? What does your main character want? Money? Love? Understanding? Usually it’s more complex than any single simplistic desire.
The protagonist changes and grows over the course of the plot as he or she reacts to events. Moments of stress reveal motivation. Put an obstacle in front of the character. For example, your protagonist has just been fired from her job and her fiancée leaves her. She seeks to feel whole again. What does it mean to be whole? What should she do? Find a loser boyfriend? Move to Spain? Grind it out and find another job, then get revenge on her fiancée? How does she react under pressure? Does she have "grace under fire?"
Techniques for Characterization and Character
Physical description. Quality over quantity. Emphasize unusual characteristics. Filter physical description into the action.
Example A. Passive voice. Too much info all at once.
Jack Jackson’s blonde-streaked brown hair was thin and floated in front of his face, and his eyes were bluish green. His nose was long and Romanesque. His part was left to right, and his eyebrows were arched and thin. He used a shampoo formulated for thin hair, and he bought it at Walgreens. His shiny black vest was buttoned over his white shirt and back, gold striped, creased pants. His belt was genuine leather, usually brown, but sometimes black, and the buckle was almost always gold, and he wore his pants like any normal person, not low and not too high. He also wore red Fruit of the Loom underwear held with tight white elastic.
Example B. Active voice. Sparse info filtered into action.
Jack Jackson’s hair flopped over his blue eyes. He sipped his martini and smiled, pursing his lips, hiding his gold tooth. Beth touched his arm.
Narrator’s statement. Be extremely careful with this technique. Easy to slip into telling and not showing. Beth glanced at her feet, as if trying to hide her disappointment.
Action. "Action is character." – F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Lisa’s husband stared at his empty wineglass, she rubbed Jon Jackson’s inner thigh.
Association. He shoved his rusty 1969 VW gear; it lurched and coughed, exhaust cloud rising to the treetops.
Interior dialogue -- revealing character’s thoughts.
Example A: What a gorgeous man! Maybe I can find that sweater he’s wearing in Jack’s size and get it for his birthday. It would look great on him!
Example B: What a gorgeous man! Maybe, if we hit it off, I can get his phone number and we can go out next week when Jack is visiting his mother.
Speech. "I was bitten by a dog once." "I hate snakes." "I know what you want and I can give it to you." "You ain’t gonna believe this."
Other’s thoughts or comments. "Jack thinks he’s cool, but you should’ve seen him last night."
Archetypes. Typical characters, often with a symbolic function, may be useful to represent something; for example, the big unfeeling oilman who seems bigger than life. Usually Archetypes are minor characters. Used too much and they can erode the story’s sense of reality.
Stereotype. Shallow, flat, no depth. Avoid.
Roman a clef, novel with a key. Real people disguised in fiction. Be careful. You must be able to add, subtract, and deviate from the real character.
You As Your Character
We almost always believe that we are smarter than we are. However, this shouldn’t prevent you from infusing yourself into your characters. After all, you are most intimate with yourself. And you share this characteristic with everyone else.
While research and learning is essential, trying to actually become smarter than you are can potentially cause problems. You may end up having your brilliant main character acting like a buffoon. (Maybe this explains all the great literature about seriously defective people.)
Write what you know. Likely, you know yourself better than you know the hotdog vendor. So writing from your point of view will likely be easier than writing from the vendor’s viewpoint. Unless of course you sell hotdogs for a living. Then you are particularly suited for the task.
All your characters are you. You are part of humanity. Even if you hate yourself, try to "love" your characters (who hate themselves).
The further afield you tread from yourself, the better actor you must become. If a character is almost nothing like you, you must become that person while you are writing. When changing characters, change your view, change who you are. When your main character transforms into a slightly different person as a result of his or her experiences, then write from that transformed viewpoint. (See sections on Point of View and Style.)
- Do not pick famous names: Madonna, Juliet, Norma Jean. Most readers will automatically associate your character with the famous character.
- Allegorical: Willy Loman, David Brooks, Alice Love Hunt, Boo Radley. If you work too hard contorting your character’s name, you risk making the allegory fake, an obvious manipulation. On the other hand, the name can be obvious and work perfectly.
- Suggestive: Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbet, Ben Dover.
1. Describe someone you know in excessive detail, then isolate important traits using just a few words.
2. Combine two people you know into one. Describe this new person.
3.Write a characterization list (my least favorite, but useful): physical attributes and history, distinguishing features, style of dressing, schooling, upbringing, formative influences, job, and so on.
1. What are your character’s inner conflicts, quirks, idiosyncrasies?
2. What causes your character the most stress? What is most likely to change your character?
Character in Conflict Activities:
1. Character A wants something but an internal conflict keeps her from getting it (at least right away).
2. (Common in numerous fiction guides and the most popular activity in my workshops.) Character A wants something character B does not want to give.
Finding Your Fiction
Point of View
What do you think about your Uncle Dick’s drunken spectacle at Thanksgiving dinner? Do you scorn him? Or do you wish you could have half as much "fun" as he did? What do you think about your prissy, uptight sister-in-law’s angry reaction? Are you ready for a shot of Vodka?
We filter the world through our unique (yet all too ordinary) personalities and point of view. Point of view occurs naturally. You might jump right in and start blazing into your story. If so, more often than not, you are the main character, the protagonist.
However, after writing for awhile from one viewpoint, you may start to feel uncomfortable. You may find yourself trapped. You may want to at least have the freedom to explore the thoughts of another.
So, as a writer, you must at least be aware of point of view (POV).
Who is "telling" your story? What is the view from which the story gets told? Who is your narrator? Who is your main character? What is the relationship of that person to the story? Are you going to stick with one, or veer off into others? Do you want the immediacy of first person, present tense, or would it be useful to distance yourself to explore other characters? To change the point of view, you might need to become an actor, modify your own personality. (See Character.)
Number of Protagonists
The single protagonist. You and the reader have no trouble identifying the hero or main character and this unique viewpoint carries throughout your story.
Dual protagonists. Two characters with more or less equal weight bound together by circumstances. In my novel, Where the River Splits, St. Louis couple David and Susan Brooks go on a canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness; it’s a last ditch effort to evaluate their marriage. The trip turns into disaster as their canoe capsizes leaving the couple stranded on opposite sides of the river and each believing the other is dead. The story alternates chapters between David’s and Susan’s point of view, converging in the last chapter where they gain a greater understand of each other and their failed relationship.
Multiple protagonists. More characters equals more difficulty. All characters must be bound by circumstances and carry more or less equal weight. (Faulkner succeeds in As I Lay Dying.)
First, Second, and Third Person
First Person. Provides immediate dramatic focus. Most straightforward option. Often intimate and sometimes confessional. However, can be restrictive, (unless your character can read minds, or see through walls, across time and distance to describe other scenes).
Second Person. Rare. I used this once, in "Sunfish" published around 1975. "You and I sat on the end of the dock. Our feet dangled in the green water. Minnows nibbled at our toes while we held bamboo poles and waited. You were pretty, just turned twenty, your hair the color of sunlight."
Third Person. Most common. From Where the River Splits -- "Susan dreamed that she was lying on her back, underwater, staring up at a distorted, bearded face leering over her." While it tends to be less intimate, it helps avoid a potentially self-serving, self-indulgent, whiney first person tone.
Central, or Subjective. Story told from the viewpoint of the main character; writer allows access to the mind of this character but not to the minds of any other characters.
Objective. Story is told completely from the outside. The writer is not participating in the story as in the central point of view, but rather, her or she is watching or observing the action.
Omniscient, God’s Eye View, Shifting or Multiple. Nothing is hidden, everything laid out like a map. Writer can tell the story from any point of view at any time within the story. She may tell it from one character, then shift to another, then interject her own position as author, and back again. Requires lots of discipline and can be disorienting to both the reader and the writer.
Peripheral. Story is told through the yes of a minor character; it is told from the edge. For example, the detective story—the writer can hide information. By doing so, the writer can often provide a surprise ending. If he told it through the eyes of the central character (the detective), he would often have to give information that would ruin the surprise. (Or, famously, NickCarraway in The Great Gatsby.)
Point of View Activities:
- Change your, or another writer’s, third person character to first person.
- Change a main character to a peripheral character.
- Change objective into subjective, or subjective to objective.
- Write a fight scene first from the view of a by-stander and then from one of the fighters.
- I have taken the following famous first paragraph and changed the POV. Can you guess the writer and the story? (Original paragraph at end of article/chapter.)
Example A -- Changed to third person and objective narrative position
He fidgeted and pinched his the loose skin on the back of his hands. But was he mad? The disease may have sharpened his senses, not dulled them. He claimed that his sense of hearing was most acute, saying that he could hear all things in heaven and earth. And he also claimed to hear things in hell. If his senses were as acute as he says they were, was he really mad? When he told the story about what happened, he appeared calm and healthy. Also, he didn’t seem to omit any details.
Example B -- Changed only to third person
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous he had been and is: but why will you say that he is mad? The disease had sharpened his senses—not destroyed them—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. He heard all things in heaven and in the earth. He heard many things in hell. How, then, is he mad? Hearken and observe how healthily—how calmly he can tell you the whole story.
Present tense gives a sense of immediacy. Past tense is common. Future Tense is rare.
However, there are no rules. My Writers Digest Award story "Pluggin’ Leaks" and my Pushcart nominated "The Wells Creek Route" used all three tenses -- present, past, and future.
"Tense" Activity: Change a passage from a past tense story to present tense or vice versa.
Is your main character sarcastic? Quick witted? Or is he Forrest Gump? The quality of your narrative, the language used, will reveal a lot about the character’s point of view. For example, a serial killer might use stark, distorted, disturbing language most of the time but soft, eerily loving language when referring to his pet snake, or rat.
Objective, impersonal language keeps the reader at a distance, possibly useful for irony or overly pathetic situations.
Intimate personal language is obviously less distant, and allows the reader to identify with the character. Contemporary novels often use intimate language.
Activity: Change the tone of one of your favorite characters. For example, make Forrest Gump a sarcastic, mean-spirited dumb-ass, with average intelligence.
Example C: Original First Paragraph. From a famous writer and his famous short story.
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am: but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed them—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.