The who of a novel: point of view and characters

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Hopefully, you now have not only the broad concept for your story, but a detailed outline. You must now deal with the issue of how to tell your story.

In focusing on this issue, you have to deal with two basic questions: who are your main characters and what point of view do you adopt. Ultimately, you tell your story through your characters.

Do

  • carefully select main characters
  • have no more than three or four major characters
  • get to know your characters
  • shift point of view
  • get into each character’s mind

Don’t

  • focus on too many characters
  • shift point of view in a scene
  • use first person
  • abandon any main characters

Do

Do carefully select main characters

You will want the reader to identify with your main characters. If one is suffering, you will want the reader to feel the character’s pain. If the character faces a challenge, the reader should be rooting for the character. Likewise, the readers should be hoping that your villain receives a fair punishment.

In order to evoke these reactions, you should select your main characters carefully. Generally, readers will find it difficult to root for a wealthy investment banker. Remember that you have a unique opportunity to create your characters.

Do have no more than three or four major characters

Books, plays, and movies often have many characters. However, you should only have three or four major characters. Any more than that, and you will confuse readers. Select the names of all of your characters with care. Using similar names for different characters, even minor ones, is likely to confuse: Mary and Marie, for example.

Do get to know your characters

You can’t write effectively about characters unless you know them. To do this, before you begin writing, draft detailed descriptions of each of your main characters. Not only how they look, but their bios and personal characteristics.

Include details such as where they went to school; their various love affairs; and relationships with others. You may only use a small amount of this information in your novel. However, the exercise is a valuable one.

Do shift point of view

There are many ways to tell a story. Many writers focus on a single character and tell the story from the point of view of that character. That character appears on every page, and the reader never learns what other characters are thinking. This can be effective, particularly in the hands of an experienced novelist.

For those who are beginning, an easier approach is to focus on your three or four main characters. Then shift the point of view in the scenes from one of these characters to another. Your story unfolds in this manner.

Do get into each character’s mind

It will be satisfying to your readers as you shift the point of view from scene to scene among your three or four main characters, if you also get into their minds. Tell the reader what they are thinking. If they have a difficult decision, how are they weighing the relevant factors.

This is not essential and some writers simply tell the story without entering any character’s minds. But if this is the case, then something is lost. You will find it a challenge to try and think like someone with a radically different lifestyle than your own. For example, you may ask yourself how will a drug user react when the police are pounding on the door.

Don’t

Do not focus on too many characters

You will want your reader to become attached to your main characters. That impact will be diluted if you focus attention on too many. Necessarily, you will have many minor characters, but it is preferable not to present what they are thinking.

What number of main characters is ideal? Four is a good recommendation. Although, you may only use three.

Do not shift point of view in a scene

Each scene should be from one character’s point of view and only one. It is jarring and disruptive to shift back and forth within a single scene to different characters’ points of view. As between main characters in a scene, present it from the point of view of the most important of them.

If you feel as if you want to present what another main character is thinking, and the scene was not from that character’s point of view, then you have solution. Present the next scene from that character’s point of view.

Do not use first person

Many excellent novels are written in the first person. It may seem easier. However, this is a much more difficult approach. As a writer, you will be limited in how you can move your plot forward.

Thus, for the beginning novelist, it is preferable not to use first person. Instead, go with third person and shifting point of view among your major characters.

Do not abandon any main characters

As your story advances, there is no need to present as many scenes from each of the main characters point of view. Some will be more important, and they should have more scenes.

On the other hand, make certain that each main character appears in scenes from time to time. You should not simply abandon a character for a hundred or so pages. You want to keep them all in the action.

Summary

The subject of this piece, point of view and characters, is not as exciting as creating your story.

These two topics fit into what’s known as writers’ craft. They are critical when your novel is being evaluated by agents and editors.

Written by

A modern millennial guy with a cute little family. Located in Southern California. I like writing about fun topics that are interesting to learn about.

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