When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.
I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it.
I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often.
Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.
I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn.
So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage.
But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait.
It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't.
My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale.
So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should.
There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."
If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones.
Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future. And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.
Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.
But they'll be wrong.
Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well.
The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters.
Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:
I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope.
How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?
It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages.
New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.
Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God. Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.
Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels.
If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing.
Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.
Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.
Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more.
You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.
Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy.
When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?
Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years.
On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.
Today, however, they can't.
Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.
If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write.
There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop.
I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.? What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?
Be well and keep writing.