In previous installments of this series, we’ve learned what characters are and discussed how to find and create them. Now, let’s talk about how to reveal characters in your story.
Although it may be tempting to describe your characters and tell the reader all about them when you first introduce them, that doesn’t work. After all, when you meet people, you don’t learn all about them right away. You usually notice their physical appearance first, and you probably learn a few facts about them—maybe their name, where they live, what they do for living, their marital/family status. Each time you meet them, you learn more. Reveal your characters the same gradual way.
You can reveal character in several ways:
- Through the eyes of another character: how the other character sees/describes the person, how they respond to him or her, what they say to and about them
- Through dialogue: what the character says and how they say it
- Through actions: what the person does, both large actions and small things like habits and patterns of behavior
- Through inner thoughts and flashbacks: what the person thinks about and remembers when they are faced with a particular situation or person
In revealing character, you must understand point of view (POV). Point of view is the eyes the reader sees through, the camera lens that captures the scene. In real life, we are limited by our POV, and so are our characters.
For example, imagine yourself at a large party. You are in the corner of the room talking with a small group of people. You can probably see other groups and individuals nearby, but you can’t see in the opposite corner of the large room or outside in the hall or in the kitchen.
If an argument breaks out, you might hear it if the people get loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the conversation around you. However, you probably can’t see who is arguing. Whether you know who is involved in the disagreement depends on how well you know them. You’ll recognize the voice of your spouse or best friend, but you won’t know who’s arguing if you just met the individuals in passing at the party.
For you to know everything that happened, someone will have to give you a blow-by-blow description. However, if you run across the room and get close enough to see and hear, you get it all firsthand.
Your characters are in the same situation. They can know only what they can see and hear and experience.
You can tell your story from several different POVs:
- First person (I)—the protagonist tells the story: I did this and thought that.
- Advantages: It is distinctive, natural, intense, and easy for the writer.
- Disadvantages: You are limited to what the narrator sees/knows—anything that happens off the stage of the protagonist must be revealed by another character or in some other way (such as reading something in a newspaper), and reading I for hundreds of pages can become boring.
- Third person singular (he/she)—the narrator tells the story from the viewpoint of a single character: He did this and thought that.
- Advantages: The same advantages apply to third person singular as first person except for immediacy.
- Disadvantage: Like first person, the action is limited to what the protagonist sees/knows.
- Third person multiple limited (multiple he/she)—the narrator tells the story through the eyes of several people: He did that and thought this. She did this and thought that.
- Advantage: This POV provides several perspectives and enables reader to feel the emotions of more than one character.
- Disadvantage: Avoiding head-hopping can be a challenge. In my description above, I “head-hopped,” meaning I jumped from one POV to another. In third person multiple limited POV, most experts advise you you should stay in the POV of one character for a complete scene. I admit I don’t always follow this advice, but however long you stay in one POV, you must keep from confusing the reader. It should be obvious when the reader is seeing the story through the eyes of a different character.
There are two points of view that are generally not recommended:
- Second person (you)—the narrator tells the story as if the reader is the character: You do this and you think that.
- Advantages: There are no real advantages to second person.
- Disadvantages: It is cumbersome and tedious, and the reader knows he or she isn’t the character.
- Omniscient (a god-like narrator)—the narrator can see everything everywhere and knows what every character is thinking: He did that and thought this. She did this and thought that. They did something else and thought other things.
- Advantage: There are no limits on the action or thoughts you can include in your story.
- Disadvantages: It can easily confuse the reader, and it keeps the reader from identifying with characters and feeling their emotions.
The most popular point of view in fiction is third person multiple limited. When you write in this POV, you can reveal your characters through their actions and dialogue no matter what character is the POV character at any given moment. You can also reveal character through the thoughts and emotions of the character who is the reader’s eyes at that time.
One of the most important steps in developing your characters and writing your story is to decide on your POV characters. Whose eyes will the reader see the action through? Whose emotions will the reader feel?
In the next installment, we’ll look at fleshing out characters with tags, traits, and relationships.
photo credit: Keyser_ Soze