Choosing Viewpoint Characters: What’s Right for Your Story?


Sometimes, it’s obvious who the viewpoint character(s) will be for a particular story. Maybe you’re writing a first-person romance novella, for instance, with the heroine as the only viewpoint character.

Often, though, there isn’t a completely clear-cut choice. You might have multiple characters playing a large-ish role in the story: chances are, your protagonist will be a viewpoint character, but you may well have others too.

When you sit down to write any new story, viewpoint is pretty much the first decision you have to make. Who will begin your story? What other voices will you bring in? The decisions you make will shape the whole of your narrative … and they’ll shape the reader’s experience of it.

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How to Write Character Descriptions That Work [With Examples]

If you’re writing fiction, at some point, you’ll probably want to describe the people populating your story.

(This isn’t absolutely essential, mind. I’ve just written a short story that consists entirely of dialogue – no dialogue tags, no action beats, nothing – and neither of the characters is described at all.)

When it comes to a description, you want to avoid doing anything remotely like this:

Julia gazed into the bathroom mirror, assessing how she looked. Her hair was neatly parted and just skimmed the top of her shoulders. Her blue eyes were perfectly spaced, and her nose had a smattering of freckles – just right, she felt. The new shade of lipstick, a reddish-pink, went well with her top. But her cleavage was non-existent …

This might just work if you want to convey a character who’s particularly self-absorbed and who frets a lot about their appearance, but, otherwise, it’s a boring and – often – annoying way to introduce your character to your readers.

So what can you do instead? Firstly…

Keep Descriptions Fairly Minimal

Some authors don’t describe much about their characters. Maybe we get a few key characteristics, especially if those are relevant to how the characters behave and interact with others (e.g. they’re unusually tall / short / skinny / fat / hairy / bald …) but we don’t have long descriptions of exactly how they look.

I think this is a good way forward. Personally, as a reader, I don’t really care what characters look like – I care who they are underneath the surface. Sometimes, their physical characteristics are important because they tell us more about who the characters are, or they’re significant because of how other characters relate to them.

In this description, from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, it matters that Celeste is so pretty because it affects how other characters relate to her, and reminds Jane of trauma in her own past:

Madeline’s expression changed. She beamed and waved. “Oh! She’s here at last! Celeste! Over here! Come and see what I’ve done!”

Jane looked up and her heart sank.

It shouldn’t matter. She knew it shouldn’t matter. But the fact was that some people were so unacceptably, hurtfully beautiful, it made you feel ashamed. Your inferiority was right there on display for the world to see. This was what a woman was meant to look like. Exactly this. She was right, and Jane was wrong.

What to Do (and What to Avoid) When Describing Characters

When you’re describing characters:

  • Don’t give us a huge chunk of description all at once. This is a bad idea not only because it halts the forward momentum of your narrative but also because the reader’s unlikely to remember most of it anyway!
  • Try describing one character through another character’s eyes. This can help reveal a lot about the person looking at them as well as the one who’s being observed, and it works very well if you’re using a third-person limited perspective.
  • If you’re writing a first person narrative, avoid having the viewpoint character describe themselves in painstaking detail. Instead, bring in key characteristics that are relevant to who they are (e.g. they’re overweight and trying to shed excess pounds – or they’re unusually tall / short and it bothers them).
  • Choose two or three key characteristics to focus on, especially unusual ones (e.g. eye colour probably isn’t worth mentioning unless it’s fairly striking, or unless one character is staring into another’s eyes…)
  • With any kind of description, word choices matter a lot. There’s a huge tonal difference between “long yellow hair” and “flowing blond hair” and “long golden locks” … even though all of those could describe exactly the same thing.

Description in Practice

Description is the thing I struggle with most in writing, and I try to do a fairly minimal amount of it! I’ll give you a few examples from Lycopolis, though, and explain why I wrote them in the way I did:

Example #1:

Kay sipped uncertainly at her hot chocolate. Seth was taller than she’d imagined him. His blond hair hung perfectly, parted in the middle to fall to his chin, just like his profile picture on Messenger. She’d brushed her own hair into fierce plaits as usual, but the wind had whipped strands of it loose.

This is the very first paragraph of the novel. Kay’s the viewpoint character, and the reader hasn’t met her or Seth yet – so I’m trying to get in a bit of description of both of them, and hint at the backstory between them (e.g. “taller than she’d imagined him” – she knew Seth already but hadn’t met him in person before; she’s clearly spent at least a bit of time imagining what he looks like). There are some basic physical details (Seth is tall with longish blond hair; Kay has plaits).

Example #2:

A few paragraphs later, we’ve got:

She lifted her head, and met his eyes. They were a greyish blue, like stonewashed denim, like the pebbles on the beach back home.

I’m not generally interested in character’s eye colour. But I’m hinting here not only at Kay’s crush on Seth – she’s noticing his eyes – but also at her homesickness (by this point, we know she’s a first-year student at Oxford).

Example #3:

Later on, we get a description of Seth from a different perspective, 14-year-old Edwin:

Seth was pretty much how Edwin had imagined from his Messenger profile picture. He was tall, and his hair was cut longish and floppy without looking gay. He wore dark cords and a grey denim jacket over a shirt which, unlike Edwin’s sweater, didn’t seem to have spent the last few days in a heap on the floor.

“Hey,” Edwin said, and found himself suddenly nervous. Did he look sort of stupid, with collar-length hair and studded bracelets and head-to-toe black?

Again, Edwin knows Seth online, but this is the first time he meets him in real life. Unlike Kay, he did picture Seth as tall – he’s rather more in awe of Seth than Kay is. I’ve got comparison going on again: with Edwin’s rather less careful attitude to clothes, for instance. And just in case Edwin hasn’t reminded the reader recently enough that he is Properly Goth, we get a quick description of what he’s wearing (and how insecure he is about it).

 

You can probably tell that, for me at least, character description is generally a way to bring in all sorts of other things: to hint at and establish relationships between characters, for instance, and to tell us about the viewpoint character, who’s describing someone.

 

Have you come across any character descriptions that work particularly well (or that just didn’t do it for you)? Share them, and the books they come from, in the comments.

 

Take the Plunge: How to (Finally) Start Your Novel

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Image from sxc.hu by tatlin.

You want to write a novel.

It’s been your New Year’s resolution more times than you want to admit. And you might well have been day-dreaming about it or scribbling notes about it for months or years.

But you’ve never quite started the actual writing. And you’re not sure that you’re ready.

Wait, that’s not you? You ARE writing a novel but it’s taking forever? I’ve got a post for you too – How to Finish Your Novel (While Life Goes On)).

If you’re still with me, here’s how to take the plunge and get your novel going:

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Let’s Get Spooky: Writing Workshop Recap

I’ve not been to nearly as many workshops and classes this year, due to a certain little person taking up a lot of my time…

Kitty-7-months-2

But my friend and fellow writer and blogger Lorna Fergusson of fictionfire runs inspiring Saturday afternoon “Focus Writing Workshops” once or twice a month at her home in Oxford, which is just ten minutes’ walk from me.

You can find her on Twitter at @LornaFergusson and on her blog, literascribe.

I signed up for her workshop Let’s Get Spooky: Tales for Dark Evenings because while I’m no Stephen King, my novel Lycopolis and its sequels have a supernatural slant and a good dash of spookiness.

If you’re writing something – or might one day write something – that involves ghosts or vampires or werewolves or demons or suchlike, read on…

(All of this is based on my notes from Lorna’s workshop, with a few thoughts of my own added in places. If you read something particularly insightful, it’s almost certainly Lorna’s insight, not mine!)

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Four Ways to Cut Your Novel’s Draft (and Make Your Story Stronger)

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Image from Flickr by adrperez

Is your novel looking a little bloated? Do you have a sneaking feeling you’ve repeated yourself a few times? Are some of your scenes really just unnecessary padding between episodes of action?

Believe me, I’ve been there. I cut my novel Lycopolis from 135,000 words (Draft 5) to 85,000 words (Draft 6).

It made for a much stronger novel, and I’m hugely grateful to my editor Lorna Fergusson for her invaluable help in deciding what to cut.

Now, I’m hoping your novel won’t require quite such drastic pruning as mine. Chances are, though, that you’re going to have some cutting to do.

How can you tell if you need to do away with some of your hard-won words?

  • Most writers over-write. Unless you’ve been told (by a writing friend or an editor) that you under-write, it’s a pretty safe bet that a bit of cutting down will improve your work.
  • You might need to get down to a certain word limit for a competition, or for the requirements of a particular publisher. It could simply be that a shorter book will suit your chosen genre better.
  • Feedback from beta readers may tell you that you need to trim down your novel. They might say something like “the story seemed to drag here” or “your scenes were a bit slow to get going” or “this bit was quite repetitive”.

So, you’ve got work ahead. But where do you start?

(I’ll assume that the basic building blocks of your story need to stay; you’re not about to cut out a whole character or a massive chunk of your plot at this stage.)

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Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]

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Image from Flickr by Andréiai

Who’s telling your story?

Perhaps the choice is easy and obvious: you’re writing from a particular character’s viewpoint in the first person (“I”) and the whole story is from their perspective.

Or perhaps it’s trickier than that. You’ve got a story to tell involving multiple characters, and you need to make some choices.

The point of view (POV) or viewpoint is the angle the story’s being told from. For instance, in Emma Donaghue’s Room, the point of view character is 5-year-old Jack.

The story might be told in the first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“s/he”). It can also be told in past tense or present tense, which I’ll come onto a little later.

Second person is rare, but first person and third person are both very common, so I’ll tackle those two first.

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How to Finish Your Novel (While Life Goes On)

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Maybe you’ve been working on your novel for months, or even years.

(Or maybe you’ve not started yet, because you’re waiting for a chunk of free time to come along.)

Life is busy. You’d love to have all day, every day, to write, but of course you don’t.

You have a day job or your own business or young kids or elderly parents or volunteering commitments or other hobbies or health issues … or quite probably a combination of several of those.

The good news is that you can do it. You CAN produce a finished novel – without your fairy godmother waving a magic wand and granting you six months away from your regular life.

And here’s how I know …

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Do You Head-Hop? Getting Third Person Point of View Right

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Image from Flickr by Andrew Morrell Photography

 One common mistake that fiction-writers make with point of view is head-hopping while writing in the limited third person.

In case that sounded like gobbledygook, let’s get some definitions pinned down:

Third Person – using he or she (“I” is the first person)

Point of view (“POV”) – the perspective from which you’re writing

It’s easy to understand point of view when you have a first person (“I”) story – but it can be trickier to get your head around it in a third person one.

There are two key types of third person narration, omniscient and limited, and I’m going to go through each before I give you an example of head-hopping.

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The Delivery Men – Guest Short Story by E.J. Newman

Something different today! The wonderful E.J. Newman is on a short story tour, and I’m thrilled to be hosting one of her stories. (I also recommend signing up to get her stories straight to your inbox; they’re always a great read and a nice break from the usual run of emails!)

 

In 2013 the marvellous Angry Robot books will be publishing three Split Worlds novels, the first is out in March and is called “Between Two Thorns”. This story is part of a crazy thing I decided to do before I got the book deal and was forging ahead with the project on my own: releasing a new story every week for a year and a day, hosted on a different site every time, all set in the Split Worlds. I wanted to give readers a taste of my kind of urban fantasy and have the opportunity to build in secrets and extra tit-bits for those people who, like me, love the tiny details. It’s also been a major part of my world-building work alongside writing the novels.

This is the thirty-seventh tale in the year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. You can also sign up to get the stories delivered to your inbox, one per week for a year and a day.

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