Looking Through Your Characters’ Eyes
To give you a sneak peek inside our IFW writing courses, today’s post is an excerpt from one of our Pointers from the Pros on looking through your characters’ eyes to create personalities that are unique to each character.
Pointers from the Pros are 4-5 page articles that demonstrate a specific point about the craft of writing. If you’re stuck on a certain element in your writing (or writing assignment), as a student, you can download a related article to help you breakthrough that particular block. Enjoy!
Take a Tip from Your Protagonist
Dr. Jekyll only had to worry about turning into Mr. Hyde. As a novelist, you must take on multiple personalities and speak in their individual voices. The overall narrative of your novel reflects your style of writing, the genre, and the setting. Your challenge is to get your characters to do all this as well as emerge as interesting and unique personalities.
If you’ve got a cozy mystery with a Miss Marple-like protagonist, the overall style must feel cozy too. For a story about a police officer in an inner city, try a contemporary style with an edge. A Knight Errant with a modern take on life won’t sound believable. Spend some time immersing yourself in the life and style of your main character.
The Voice of Your Characters
No doubt you’ve already decided on your character’s physical description and assigned him or her a role in the story. Now your character is set to speak and think.
Outgoing and gregarious? You’ll want your character to sound that way too. A stuffy person speaks primly, a shrew nags and scolds. The idea is to keep the voice in sync with your character’s personality. The quickest way to spark interest is to bring your character to life with a unique way of looking at the world.
Compare these two descriptions from a man returning to his hometown. The differences are in the details. In which example does a real personality stand out? Does the voice sound original?
I arrived back in town after being away for a couple of years. It all looked about the same, like when I left. I noticed the railroad station sign still hadn’t been repaired. I could see the old bar was across the street. In the air, I recognized that the meat processing plant was still in business. That and the smell of the river reminded me that I was back home.
I had come back from being away a long time. I stepped off the train, put my suitcase down, and looked at the town. It looked the same as when I left. The big iron Kornkill sign still hung crazily from one hinge and the red neon letters still spelled Bud in the window of the Station Diner. Even the smell of the place was the same, a sour tang from Krackmayer’s sausage factory mingling with the brooding river’s fishiness. I was home.
(from The Sandman’s Eyes by Patricia Windsor)
Family and Geographic Background
Where your character comes from, as well as their education, interests, and experience, all go into how he or she speaks. (Of course, some characters might be hiding something in which case they will not reveal their true nature in their dialogue.)
How do you get the regional background across in dialogue? Phonetic spelling and dropped endings can make a page look cluttered and strange and become tiring to read. Sentence structure can be used more effectively to indicate an accent than trying to show it with phonetics. Foreign languages tend to put verbs and nouns in different sequences than English.
Regional words, catchphrases, and folk sayings add a taste of the area. But use them sparingly and be sure not all your characters sound the same. If one character habitually uses a certain expression that becomes a trademark, avoid putting it into another character’s mouth. If you have someone who always says he’s happy as a clam at high tide, keep it uniquely his. In one recent bestselling novel, it seemed as if all the characters said there you have it, which effectively homogenized the phrase.
But let’s say your novel takes place in medieval times. You don’t want it to sound like the original Middle English of the Canterbury tales. But don’t let your characters say “duh” and use modern shortcuts either. Historical novels with believable yet accessible voices are Kate Sedley’s Roger the Chapman series; Michael Jecks’ Medieval West Country Mysteries; and Sharon Kay Penman’s Medieval Mysteries.
A good example is Kwan’s distinctive voice in Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses. Kwan pronounces her sister’s name, Olivia, as Libby-yah, adding just the right touch of an accent.
Thinking Inside Your Character’s Mind
Your character’s inner thoughts and feelings create an intimate bond with the reader. An inner narrative is comprised of private thoughts and feelings. These can be different from the way the character speaks in dialogue. Throughout your novel, a character may think internally in reaction to another character or to a scene. Such a narrative can be used during dialogue with other characters, to show internal reaction, agreement, or disagreement. Inner narratives are useful for creating contrast. What goes on inside your character’s mind can be very different from what he or she says aloud. People often say one thing and think another.
It was a balmy night. Anything might happen. Just around the corner might be changes. Funny, he had traveled this way almost every day of his life, first to school and now to the garage and his job. In daylight, the journey was ordinary. At night, it was almost mysterious, full of possibilities. He felt full of excitement as he walked down the street.
Inner narrative is like ordinary thought and corresponds to whatever is taking place at the moment.
Stream of Consciousness
A term coined by Henry James in 1890, stream of consciousness is a flow of thoughts and images, random memories, and dreams that are conscious or half-conscious. Experimental writers in the ‘20s and ‘30s experimented with stream of consciousness in the avant-garde movement. James Joyce wrote his novel Ulysses in this style.
For writers today, a modified form of stream of consciousness can be effective in short spurts.
Outside the forest waits. Forest full of trees, trees have always been in my life, I would climb them high, my mother scolded, don’t get hurt, Lisa, watch it, Lisa, always afraid. Now I am not afraid. So different. This street is different, cement, not leaves, buildings, not trees. Where am I, I wonder. Am I dreaming? Who waits?
Unlike inner narrative, stream of consciousness might be totally unrelated to the present action.
One Step at a Time
With so many choices, deciding on a voice can seem overwhelming. Take it in small steps. First, decide whether you will write your novel in first person or third person. Experiment by taking a few pages of one of your stories and trying both styles. Which seems more natural? Which would create too many limitations?
Once you have found an overall voice for your novel, the next step is to decide how your characters will sound. Try writing a letter or journal excerpt for each character to get the feel of voice. Don’t be afraid to change your mind! If style or voice is just not working as you move along, go back and start again. In the words of Jonathan Swift: “Blot out, insert, refine, enlarge, diminish, interline. . . .
A Window into Point of View
Think of viewpoint as a reader’s window into your story. A clear, polished window gives the best view, enabling the reader to see the story as you intend it. A cloudy, murky window offers an equally cloudy view. If readers must squint and struggle, your novel can suffer.
First Person—You write in the voice of your protagonist. This creates an intimate bond between the character and the reader. The story unfolds only through the protagonist’s eyes. The thoughts and actions of other characters cannot be revealed unless the protagonist is there to listen to dialogue or see the action.
First person is I writing: I went to the party, I left early. My husband and I play tennis. When there is dialogue, the protagonist relates what is said by using I in the tag line:
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said to John. “It certainly is,” he said to me.
Second Person—You write as if talking to yourself, or to readers who are present, sharing the story’s events. This style can sound stilted and become tiring. Few novels use this technique. An exception is Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer For the Dying.
Second person is you writing: You feel as if you’re alone. You look around the room.
“It’s a beautiful day,” you say to John. “It certainly is,” he says to you.
Third Person—You write through your protagonist’s eyes in his or her presence. Thoughts and feelings are revealed from the character’s inner viewpoint. It is less intimate than first person, although the story still unfolds only from your protagonist’s viewpoint. This style affords more freedom with description and background facts.
Third person is he and she writing: A storm had been predicted. It took a long time to get a cab. He walked in out of the rain and shook his umbrella.
“I like this restaurant,” he said to Alice. “I do too,” she said to him.
He looked around the room. This is the perfect place for the party, he thought.
Here, There, Everywhere … Looking into Every Window
Omniscient Point of View—Shakespeare might have called it everywhither, the ability to be in more than one place at the same time: The technique makes you an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.
Tell readers what everyone is thinking and feeling and your story loses its edge. With an omniscient POV there are no surprises. Your reader wonders: which character should I identify with? Which should I care most about?
Victorian writers often warned the reader (“Little did he know . . .”) or inserted their own agenda into the story (“We all know such a thing is morally wrong”). Fairytales and folktales are told by an omniscient narrator. But today, being everywhither is an old-fashioned technique.
Point of view—the windows to your story—can make a big difference in its success. Keep your windows brightly polished but look into only one of them at a time.
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Patricia Windsor has published short stories, articles, and 17 novels that have been translated into many languages. She received an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for The Sandman’s Eyes (quoted above). She taught creative writing for thirty years.
Writing involves choices. Word by word we can harness the power and magic of words. Let’s make the most of our writing choices with today’s post.