Exploiting Point of View to Make Characters Come Alive

Monday, March 14, 2011
Exploiting Point of View to Make Characters Come Alive

by Diane O’Connell

Remember the last time you read a great novel? What was it that stood out the most, that stayed with you long after you closed the last page? Chances are it was the characters. But more than that, it was the way those characters thought and viewed the world around them. In other words, it was their point of view.

POV is — I believe —the most important, yet least understood element of fiction writing. Too many novice writers never go beyond simply deciding whether to use the first person or the third person. They don’t understand how to really use POV to make their characters come alive for the reader.

Ask these five questions to help you exploit your use of POV:

1. How does my character view the world? Is your POV character an innocent naïf or a bitter old man? An unrepentant alcoholic or a genteel housewife? A slick con artist who thinks nothing of screwing an elderly couple out of their life savings, or a public defender who believes in justice for all? Each of these characters will see the world in a very different way. And how they see the world affects every interaction they have.

2. What does my character think about? No one knows what’s really in another person’s mind. But when you fully exploit POV, you invite your readers into the place where your characters feel most at home — their thoughts. And because people’s thoughts are uncensored, this is where you really are telling the truth in a deep way that connects with all of human nature.

3. What are my character’s inner drives? Suppose your POV character is a vigilante. Just having him take the law into his own hands isn’t enough motivation for readers to fully connect with that character — even if he seems to be justified. You need to determine what drives him deep down inside, whether it’s to “protect the innocent from the scum of the earth” or — as in the case of Batman — to “avenge the brutal murder of his parents.” Readers can forgive a character nearly anything if they understand what drives him.

4. How does my character see herself? A character who sees herself as a helpless victim or hopeless loser will act very differently from the character who believes she’s smarter than others or deserves only the very best that life has to offer. That self-POV determines her actions and relationships. Remember: villains always see themselves as being right.

5. What words would my character use to describe what he sees? Imagine a spring morning in a park. A person mourning over a lost lover might notice the lilacs bending under the weight of the morning dew and think of them as “lugubrious.” A woman desperately longing for motherhood might focus on the apple tree, “pregnant with blossoms.” A man who has just had an argument with his wife over his whereabouts the previous evening might zero in on the ivy that’s “threatening to choke the life out of a tree.”

By exploiting POV, your story will engross your readers. They will become emotionally invested in your characters and will feel a personal stake in what happens to them. Your characters will come alive as real flesh-and-blood people — with strong inner lives that connect to your readers.

Diane O'Connell has been a New York publishing professional for 25 years and has worked as an editor at some of the top publishing houses, including Random House. Since forming Write to Sell Your Book, she has helped dozens of writers become published authors--including a first-time novelist who got a $500,000 two-book contract from Bantam after working with her. Diane is also the author of five traditionally published books, including the groundbreaking, critically acclaimed Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, which was the subject of a 20/20 report by John Stossel. Her mission is to help authors develop their talent and improve their skills so they can achieve their dreams of publication.

Diane is also a WOW! Women on Writing Classroom instructor. Her interactive workshop Mastering Point of View starts Monday, April 4th and is limited to 15 students, so make sure you reserve your spot today. Click here to sign up now!


Anonymous said...

If I don't know how my characters use the washroom or groom, I don't know them well enough. Some are truly gross. Some have disturbing habits. Some make me wish I didn't know them so well. LOL!

Cayla Kluver said...

Great food for thought. Sharing! :)

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