Category Archives: Characters

Writing: Point of View

Each story has a voice, a style of telling all its own that brings out the emotional and physical struggle the characters face. Sometimes, however, finding that voice isn’t easy.

Point of view is an often misunderstood, often under-studied aspect of writing. This makes no sense considering the impact such a simple thing as narrative voice can make. The right one will bring your story more pull and power than you imagined possible while the wrong one can make the book appear forced and distant. Imagine Harry Potter in first person without the extra knowledge and insight of the narrator, or Twilight in the distant voice of a narrator who didn’t share Bella’s obsession with the mystery that Edward presented. They would be entirely different books and you may not have ever heard about them if they’d been written this way.

Sometimes, if you’ve hit a road block with your current project, it may have nothing to do with the characters, plot, or setting. It might have not have anything to do with the fact that its tax season or your epic fight with your significant other/best friend/parents. Sometimes the problem is as simple as the fact that you’ve picked the wrong narrative style. Each narrative voice has its own bonuses, its own drawbacks, and its own group of writers who swear by it. This post will detail why it’s important to find the right voice for your story and it will be followed next week by a series of posts, one for each narrative style. Hopefully, by the end of the lesson you’ll better understand point of view.

Say, for example, you’ve chosen to tell the story from your protagonist’s (we’ll call him MC) point of view in first person. You want readers to empathize as he suffers through the death of his family and to cheer him to victory as he enacts his revenge, but you’ve run into a problem. MC is so wrapped up in his own grief and anger that he misses obvious signs that are right in front of his face, signs the reader needs to see and understand. You try to get him to wake up and see the light, but doing that ruins the gritty, angst-ridden quality that drives his actions. Though you cringe at the thought of recasting 70,000 words worth of work, consider that first person may not be your best option. Some characters are so emotionally involved in their stories that they lose the ability to be even the least bit objective and observant. Unless you have a way to use this blindness as a narrative tool, third person limited omniscient may be the way to go.

The converse can also hold true. Some characters feel fake and unemotional when kept at the distance of third person narration. Try writing a chapter, or even a scene, in first person and see what comes to light. You may learn things about your character you didn’t even know.

Each style can held illuminate aspects of your characters. Experiment with a few until you find the style that bests fits the character your story is about. It could make a world of difference.

See also:  (these will be linked as the posts go live)
First Person
Second Person
Third Person Objective
Third Person Limited Omniscient
Third Person Omniscient

Books: Crossing the Line

Where is the line drawn between literature and fanfiction? Length? Character development? Readability? Publication? The physical presence of the author? As far as I can tell, the answer lies somewhere between the latter two.

Even though she’s been dead for quite some time now, Jane Austen’s books still excite quite a bit of admiration. So enamored with her characters (namely Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy) do some become that they take it upon themselves to continue the story. While this shouldn’t be surprising considering the web space devoted to alterations and continuations of living authors’ work (, for example), it is still odd to come across a book on a shelf in a store that has somehow escaped the odious label of fanfiction.

Personally, I adore Jane Austen’s work. Pride and Prejudice has an especially dear place on my bookshelf (it’s one of the only books I own multiple copies of), so when I ran across multiple versions of what happened to the Darcys after their wedding, I found myself intrigued. Since that day, I’ve read four different versions.

Each one was unique, but overall they ranged in worth just as the online unpublished fanfictions did. Some were far more developed and intricate while others seeemed merely interested in what happened between the sheets of the Darcys’ marital bed. I even found myself wondering if one of the authors had ever even picked up the actual novel or had simply watched the condensed 2005 Kiera Knightly/Matthw Macfayden version. Overt references to the movie abounded and always in instances where the book was drastically different. It amazed me that something like this could cross the line between the unpublishable and the literary. But, then again, maybe it’s best to just take it as one more reminder that subjectivity rules here.

Characters: Why Perfection is Annoying

People aren’t perfect. Of course, perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but people aren’t universally perfect. In fact, most people’s automatic reaction when they see someone who lives an apparently perfect life—great job, great car, great bank account—is jealousy (those of you who disagree have either never met someone who fits your definition of “perfect” or are one of the perfect ones). Life is good at throwing curveballs, and someone who can hit them out of the park every time is unreal and aggravating.

For whatever reason, perfection in writing is even more annoying than it is in real life. For example, on the side of working on the Fallen series, I have been writing a book tentatively titled Adelle. The narrator, a boy named Cody, was perfect, originally. Gorgeous, athletic, intelligent, popular, loving family, considerate friends, the works. When I showed people the first few chapters, I got a unanimous reaction: “Oh, come on! No one is like that!”

I listened to their comments and saw that they were right. Cody and his family were sickeningly sweet. That wasn’t what I was going for, so I scrapped four chapters (over fifty pages of work) and started over. But I don’t regret it because I learned a valuable lesson: likeable characters have to be relatable. Despite appearances, making them perfect is a surefire way to alienate 98.9% of readers.

As I thought about this issue, I realized that, in fiction and in life, the appearance of perfection often hides a dark, devastating secret. Think The Stepford Wives. Think Ted Bundy. Examples abound, each one demonstrating the truth of this peculiar phenomenon, but this wasn’t the only conclusion I reached. I also realized that truly perfect people (the very few not hiding bodies in their basement or skeletons in their closet) don’t have problems. Without setbacks and dilemmas, you’re left with an awfully boring story. How, then, can you avoid perfection?

There are several ways you could introduce depth and interest in an otherwise unbelievable and unrelatable character. You could reveal a flaw to readers that no one but the character sees (a debilitating illness, a disturbing childhood, etc.), you could show readers a flaw that everyone except the character sees (extreme unfounded arrogance, a complete lack of tact, etc.), or you could alter the character slightly to make perfection their goal instead of something they’ve already obtained. Any of these methods would add dimension to both plot and characterization.

However, something to think about before or as you take away a character’s perfection is why you made them perfect in the first place. What was your goal? What point were you trying to make? For which part of the plot was this perfection important? If you don’t have answers to these questions, have no qualms about making changes to the character (and maybe check out my first article on characters); on the other hand, if there was an importance attached to the semblance of perfection, you want to make sure you find another way to get that point across. Is the character’s fall from grace the key to the story? Then leave them their perfection, throw in hubris and a tragic flaw, and allow readers to anticipate their downfall.

Characters: Really Listening to the Voices in Your Head

“Where do your characters come from?”

It’s a question many authors are asked, and each one has a different answer. Some characters are based on a single individual, while others are a collection of several. Some characters are slowly discovered through painstaking work, while others appear fully realized in a dream. Some characters appear in the front of an author’s mind and demand to tell their story, while others must be drawn out of hiding. Yet, as disparate as all these “births” are, not one of them is the wrong, right, better, or worse to build a character.

For the sake of this article, let’s say no characters have worked their way into your dreams and no one is knocking on your eardrum demanding your attention. Let’s say that you know you have a character lurking in your subconscious, but they haven’t come out of hiding yet. How do you draw them out?

But I want to preface this with the acknowledgement that this is both a variation and a generalization of the technique I use myself. It may not work for everyone, so feel free to adapt where necessary. Also, at the end of the article I have included a template on which to keep all character information organized. Read the article first, and then use the tips to fill in the template.

The thing to start with is the overall feel and personality of the character. Are they strong? Independent? Stubborn? Weak-willed? Subservient? Ingratiating? Create a list (as long or short as you need) of dominant, important, influential, but general characteristics. Once you’re satisfied with your list, look carefully at the personality you’ve built. You want to steer clear of stereotypical, and this is where it’s easiest to catch. Watch for groupings of traits that are archetypal and overused like “tall, dark, and handsome.” Think about the character you are building and make sure you give them something unique, something that makes them different from all the other tall, dark and handsome heroes—a fear of balloons, an obsessive personality, a penchant for French bread—then, figure out where in your story this character fits.

Is this a main player, one who isn’t willing to wait for the action of the story to come to them? Is this someone who waits on the sidelines for the perfect moment to act? Or, is this someone who will only get involved if they’re dragged in by someone else? Whatever the case, knowing this can help you figure out the part this character will play.

Once you’ve developed your character’s personality, it’s time to look at why they’re like that. What helped develop that arrogance? Why are they shy? What made them scared of heights? Information like this may or may not come into your story, but it will give you a deeper understanding of your character’s internal motivations—what drives them, what scares them, and what they truly want out of life. This kind of development will also give you a window to not only how your character would naturally react in a particular situation, but why.

Next, move out of their head and build the more superficial aspects of character. This is where you develop physical appearance (height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc.), distinguishing marks (scars, deformities, injuries, etc.), and the all important, but sometimes daunting, task of naming them. Since physical appearance and distinguishing marks are incredibly subjective and dependent, I will jump directly to naming.

How you go about finding character names depends on the kind of story you’re writing. If you’re working on a sci-fi/fantasy novel, you may want to create original names that fit the society you have built. There are several ways to do this: Buy a baby name book, pick a unique name, and alter it, string letters together in different combinations until you find something you like, or build a language and use it to create interesting, original, appropriate, and structured names. If writing a fantasy and choosing any of these methods, you won’t have to worry about something that plagues writers of mainstream fiction: name associations.

Most people I know have said the following at least once: “I’ve just never met someone named (fill in name here) that I liked.” Personally, there are a few names that carry this kind of stigma, and I know that I would never be able to use those names for a character without becoming biased against that character. Now, there is no possible way to guard against this kind of association. You can’t guarantee that the name you choose won’t be a name someone else hates—you’d give yourself an aneurism trying—but you can be aware of general preconceptions some kinds of names carry with them. Chad, Ethel, Bert, Missy—for most people, names like these conjure general stereotypes like jock, old-fashioned, geek, or cheerleader. Once you recognize this, though, you can use it to your advantage. Maybe you have a boy named Bartholomew Anderson Winston III and, even though he’s athletic and intelligent, he’s shy and depressed because kids constantly picked on his name growing up. Maybe your character was named after a very important family member and is very protective of their name. Maybe the name everyone calls them is one they chose for themselves to fit the type of person they wish they were or are pretending to be. A name can be a very powerful thing.

Why go to all this trouble, though? Why can’t you just pick a name you like, give them a pretty face, write a story, and see what happens? For several reasons, most of which revolve around the reader’s perception of your character’s humanity. People aren’t perfect. (I’ll elaborate on this in the next article.)People have dimensions. Certain sides of a person’s personality only come out around certain people. Others are hidden from everyone. Humans are just like that.

A person’s dimensions developed from somewhere. It is rare that someone develops a habit for no reason. Maybe they started dying their hair because someone told them their natural one looked hideous with their complexion, but now they don’t even remember what their natural color is. And maybe they started biting their nails because they broke often, but now it’s an inescapable nervous habit. Maybe a teenage girl’s eating disorder started from an offhand comment her old dance teacher once made, but now no one can convince her she doesn’t resemble an elephant. Even if the person themselves doesn’t remember why they started doing something, or thinking a certain way, it all had to start somewhere.

Taking the time to fully develop and understand your characters helps readers feel as though they’re reading about real people because, to you, they will be. Besides, I can promise that if you see your characters as anything less than human, you won’t be able to convince anyone else that they’re anything but words on a page.

Character Template

Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Currently Lives: