Giving a character some viewpoint scenes opens a world of opportunities to help readers get to know them. But taking advantage of these opportunities may require some thought on your part. Without that, you could end up with a viewpoint character who feels more like a camera than a person.
One way to bring out your viewpoint character is to alter the style of your prose to reflect their personal voice. However, if their voice doesn’t come naturally to you, that’s difficult to keep up for a whole book. So this time, let’s skip voice and focus on content. Below are five small ways to bring out your viewpoint character’s personality.
1. Create Associations
Your viewpoint character has a lifetime of knowledge and memories that could come up during a scene. When they encounter new information and experiences, they’ll place it in the context of everything they already know. Showcase that by evoking associations between current events and previous experience.
- If they’ve encountered something before, what’s changed since last time? Is an acquaintance older than they remember? Has their favorite tavern been rebuilt after a fire? Does their best friend look unusually tired even though their uniform has actually been pressed for once?
- What personal things might they be reminded of? Does the glamorous dress in the window remind them of the prom they attended? Does their new partner remind them of their sister? Is their new high-tech gadget something their child would love to steal and play with until it breaks?
- Which past experiences help them understand new things? When they encounter someone who acts hostile, the viewpoint character might remember a time they acted like that. When they learn big political news, they might remember a strategy they used during a game or competition.
Children’s toys were scattered around the empty home: bright action figures, big-eyed plushies, and wooden blocks still assembled into a fortress. My childhood self would have envied that fortress; I couldn’t build so much as a hovel before Katie showed up to knock it down. I guess some things don’t change.
Where possible, cultivate reminders that help you develop character arcs, relationships, and important backstory.
2. Alter What They Notice
Your viewpoint character should be more than a camera, but even as a camera they can show some personality. What you include in your narration reflects what they notice and pay attention to. Many of those items should be typical, such as observing a room they just walked into, but some may be unique to them.
- Do they worry about unattended children? You might include more description of children in the background as the viewpoint character is distracted trying to identify a parent.
- Do they love fashion? You might include more description and commentary about the clothes everyone wears and what each garment suggests about its wearer.
- Do loud noises bother them? You might include more description of loud noises in the surrounding environment. Your viewpoint character may decide not to walk by that construction site after all.
Zuri’s brunch with Professor Wilkins was an exercise in patience. While he lectured nonstop, she waited along with his black tea. It sat untouched, still steeping.
“Did you have a chance to review my portfolio?” Zuri finally cut in.
“Ah, yes. I think you’re very creative.” The professor reached for his tea, paused, and grabbed his napkin instead. “However, your technical skills have a ways to go.”
“I know. I promise I’ll work hard.” Zuri made a show of straining her second cup of tea, but the professor didn’t take the hint. This was a man who liked it dark and bitter. Was that a bad omen?
Altering what your character pays attention to provides a great opportunity to specify what they feel strongly about.
3. Reflect Knowledge
Use more detail and precise language for things the viewpoint character is knowledgeable about, particularly if it’s something they’re interested in. Just as important, be vague about subjects the viewpoint character knows little about and finds boring. For instance, nerds often refer to any sport as “the sportsball.” While this is a deliberate joke, it reflects our real tendency to lump together what we don’t know or care about.
- If your viewpoint character is a ranger, conservationist, gardener, or arborist, they might precisely identify the species of any trees mentioned in the description, plus a tree’s approximate age, height, and condition.
- If your viewpoint character knows nothing about cars, they might describe a truck as a big car with a long trunk. Minivans might be “those family cars with all the seats.”
- Your viewpoint character could precisely identify colors while being oblivious to composition. A painting might be “pretty like all paintings are, I guess,” but it does have a nice shade of pale periwinkle that contrasts with the burnt orange.
I was ushered into a sitting room with a black leather sofa behind a glass coffee table. Next to the window, some kind of antique stand held up a sickly aloe vera. The succulent was tilted on its side; the roots no longer anchored it to the pot. Everyone watered their aloe vera too often.
If your description is vague enough to confuse readers, adding dialogue could allow another character to use clearer terms.
4. Work In Likes and Dislikes
Your viewpoint character will naturally have opinions about things they encounter. In many stories, these opinions are presented as facts anyone would agree with. To add more characterization, swap this for opinions that are clearly a matter of personal preference.
- Instead of describing food at an inn as simple but hearty, your viewpoint character might pick all the mushrooms out of the stew. Once this task is complete, they find the stew delightfully thick.
- Instead of describing someone’s clothes as fashionable, your viewpoint character might think that hot-pink skirt is cute and wonder if they might borrow it.
- Instead of describing a mansion as elegantly Victorian, your viewpoint character might comment that the Victorian decor is too authentic because it looks cluttered and busy. They would tear down those frilly curtains if only they could.
Outside, the dark clouds looked close enough to reach up and stroke. A moist, balmy breeze carried the first hints of rain. Naya took off her hat and shook out her hair to let the wind tousle it. What a perfect day.
In most cases, you don’t need to justify your character’s tastes. If you do, readers might believe you personally hate mushrooms or think pink is superior to yellow.
5. Change Their Interpretation
Everyone applies their own bias when interpreting situations. They may see a glass as half full or half empty, or their lens may be more personal yet. When they don’t have complete information, what type of conclusions do they jump to? Put in some internal narration that fleshes out their response.
- When someone frowns, who’s to blame? Do they assume they did something wrong or do they think the frowner is a grumpy or judgy person? Is this frown a social crisis or something they can shrug off?
- When someone offers them a great deal on a horse, do they assume that the seller is generous? Or do they jump to the conclusion that something must be wrong with the horse? Does the viewpoint character think they charmed the seller into lowering the price, or do they ponder whether the universe is sending them a message?
- When something goes wrong while they are traveling, is that more evidence that traveling is the worst? Or is it a learning experience that gives them something exciting to put in their travel journal? Perhaps it means they should have brought a guide; a guide surely would have fixed everything.
A metallic bang woke me up late that night. I sat up. What if Biscuit got into something downstairs? He was such a small pup; if something fell it could hurt him. I threw on a robe and rushed down.
Biscuit looked up from where he’d been sleeping on the couch. I sighed, my shoulders relaxing, and gave him a few strokes. As I turned back to the stairs, something moved outside the window. Oh, so it was the neighbors making a ruckus. Whatever. I headed back up to bed.
If your viewpoint character is very positive, you may need to work a little harder to clarify when disaster is looming. Otherwise, you could lose tension. If your viewpoint character is more negative, you may need to tone it down or mix it up. That will keep the narration from becoming too unpleasant and prevent your character from becoming unlikable.
Inventing these embellishments as you’re drafting is a fine way to take advantage of opportunities that come up. However, don’t forget to take notes on what traits you’re giving your viewpoint character. If their personality feels different from moment to moment, it will lose meaning.
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