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Drawing readers closer to your character
Fiction offers readers the chance to “live” in another world while making emotional connections with characters. Award-winning author Nancy Kress says, “It lets us experience the world from inside someone else’s head.” As fiction writers, we strive to intensify that experience by drawing readers deep into a story world that feels authentic. A big part of that effort involves helping readers to identify with the characters so they care what happens to those characters from the first page to the end of the story.
By the revision stage, you have already written your story using a particular point of view: omniscient, first person, third person, or (in rare cases) second person. With third person, you either limited yourself to one viewpoint character from start to finish or you showed more than one character’s viewpoint in different chapters or scenes. Most experts recommend sticking with a single viewpoint per scene since too many shifting viewpoints (called “head-hopping”) can confuse readers and jolt them out of the story world.
This discussion focuses on ways to intensify a third-person point of view (POV) to achieve what is called a close third person viewpoint. Drawing readers deeply inside a character’s POV offers some of the benefits of writing in first person, such as a sense of intimacy and identification with the character while giving the author more leeway than a story that comes completely from one character’s own words and awareness.
Before you reach the stage of polishing your manuscript, you will check to make sure you stayed with your chosen character’s POV. You will correct unintentional shifts to other character’s perspectives, along with shifts into an author’s all-knowing (omniscient) perspective. That means, for example, no outside views of your character’s appearance or body language unless the character is aware of those things, too.
Now, as you fine-tune the POV, look for ways to help readers identify even more closely, so they can “live” the story events right along with your character.
Here are some suggestions:
Add internal dialogue (also called internal monologue).
Internal dialogue allows readers to share a character’s direct thoughts, thus reducing the distance between reader and character. Look for scenes that might benefit from internal dialogue. At the same time, avoid using too much and make sure it seems like a natural outgrowth of the scene.
Show, don’t tell, your character’s experience, using language that reflects the character’s natural voice and personality.
Readers feel closer to characters when you show, rather than tell, how characters feel. As Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote in 1886, “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” Look for phrases like these in your story: “Sasha was angry,” “He felt sad,” “She was excited,” or “Novak felt happy.” Replace them with writing that helps readers feel what the characters feel so instead of “Sasha was angry,” which tells your reader, show how your character feels with something like, “Sasha slammed the door and stomped out of the room.” Think about your character’s internal physical sensations, movements, and gestures moment-to-moment.
Show specific, nuanced emotions. Is your character irritated, indignant, or bewildered rather than just “upset”? Mildly embarrassed, humbled, humiliated? How would your character feel physically if they were dismayed, elated, terrified, enthralled, curious, or content? And what would they do? For example, does fear produce fight or flight reactions? To improve your skills in this area, try creating phrases that show emotions in fresh, vivid ways as part of your writing practice sessions. Use them in your fiction when they fit a particular character and situation.
Remove phrases that add an unnecessary layer between reader and character.
Once we establish a strong viewpoint, we usually can cut phrases such as “he saw,” “she heard,” “he watched,” “she noticed,” “he hoped,” and the like. Readers don’t need these so-called “markers” when they know everything in the scene is coming from the viewpoint character’s perceptions. So instead of writing “She saw the moon vanish behind dense gray clouds and heard whippoorwills singing in the woods,” you can simply write “The moon vanished behind dense gray clouds, and whippoorwills sang in the woods.” (This tip also applies to stories written in first person.)
These passages incorporate the suggestions above:
Original: Aron felt embarrassed as he watched the bottle shatter, splashing tamale sauce across the floor. He figured that his face was as red as the sauce.
Polished: The bottle shattered, splashing tamale sauce across the floor. Aron cringed. Oh, fine, just great! His face felt as red-hot as the sauce.
Original: Clem read the letter with concern. He could imagine how angry Nolan must have been when he saw it.
Polished: Clem’s fingers tightened around the edges of the letter. How angry Nolan must have been when he read it!
Original: “What do you have in mind?” she demanded, feeling worried that Lars might once again be planning something he’d regret.
Polished: “What do you have in mind?” she demanded. Knowing Lars, he might be planning something he’d regret.
Original: Nia smacked her best serve over the net and got into position for her next shot. But her opponent hit a blistering return that she couldn’t reach.
Polished: Nia smacked her best serve over the net and moved into position for her next shot. Back came a blistering return. Damn!—untouchable.
Original: Jerold felt his heart pounding as he studied the list of winners three times, hoping to see his name. Disappointment engulfed him when he didn’t find it.
Polished: Jerold studied the list of winners. Where was his name? He read the list again, and then a third time, his heart hammering his chest. I was counting on that prize money. Now what?
As you revise current manuscripts and craft new stories, consider the advantages of a close third person viewpoint. Then polish and perfect to forge that bond between reader and character for maximum dramatic impact.
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.