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Writing from Your Character’s Point of View: 5 Guidelines

Cheryl's Musings: Writing from Your Character’s Point of View: 5 Guidelines

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Writing from Your Character’s Point of View: 5 Guidelines

In my current work-in-progress, I’m writing from the POV of a 12-year-old boy. As I wrote earlier, finding his voice has been a challenge! And since I’m writing in first person, I have to stay in that voice ALL THE TIME—when he speaks, when he thinks, even in the details I include when describing setting and other characters.

squirrel*Photo courtesy of exfordy on Flickr Creative Commons

Despite my love of writing flowery description, 12-year-old Elliot probably won’t think about the way light reflects golden from the many-paned window, and even he does happen to notice flowers growing alongside the path, he certainly won’t know that they’re tiger lilies unless I’ve already shown him to have a love of horticulture. (He doesn’t. He loves squirrels.)

I never get voice perfect on a first draft, but keeping the following guidelines in mind can help me get closer. On a rewrite, these guidelines help me analyze whether the voice is consistent and believable—or whether it strays into author-speak.

Five Guidelines for Writing Character’s POV

  1. What does your character TYPE notice? A typical 12-year-old’s attention can be captured by friends, games, food, and, occasionally, school. On the other hand, he probably won’t notice his sister’s new hairstyle, the wrinkles on his t-shirt, or the school books scattered across the living room floor.
  2. What does your SPECIFIC character notice—what sets him apart? One way to bring setting detail into your writing without sacrificing voice is to explore the things that will interest your character. For instance, my 12-year-old, squirrel-loving protagonist notices trees and the creatures that live in them. He could point out a squirrel nest and would know when a pair of starlings were harrying a squirrel. This sort of detail brings the scene to life as well as providing insight into your character.
  3. How do your character’s opinions reflect in his observations? Description from a character’s POV is a great way to show attitude and bias. Does he like his math teacher? If so, he’s more likely to notice pleasant details like a smile, twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks. If he hates the teacher, he’s more likely to notice negative details—greasy hair, a lined face, boots that look like they could break fingers. Even a neutral detail—the teacher’s habit of humming under his breath—can be described as endearing or annoying.
  4. What’s your character’s emotional state? We’ve all experienced it: grumpy people tend to notice the negative whereas happy people tend to notice the positive. Frightened people are more likely to jump at shadows and creaking floorboards. Portray your character’s emotional state both by what he notices and by his interpretation.
  5. How does your character use language? Now that you’ve figured out WHAT your character would notice, how his pre-existing OPINIONS and biases would impact his observations, and how his EMOTIONAL STATE affects his interpretations, you’re ready to think about how he would EXPRESS what he notices. Let him draw on his experience for analogies. Incorporate characteristic phrases, gestures, and speech rhythms (yep, I’m talking about voice again!) not just into his speech and thoughts—incorporate them into the narrative itself.

What about you? How do you stay in your characters’ POV?

:) Cheryl

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At April 25, 2011 at 8:24 AM , Blogger K.B. Owen said...

Cheryl, where's your "tweet this" button? I really liked your post today (well, not just today or course!) But it's harder to share your post without the tweet button.
BTW, did you unfollow my blog, or is something hinky going on with Google Friends Connect? You're pic keeps appearing and disappearing.
Have a great day,

At April 25, 2011 at 10:49 AM , Blogger Andrea Mack said...

Cheryl, this is a great post! It's a really good reminder of how to develop interesting characters.

At April 25, 2011 at 4:49 PM , Blogger Jacqvern said...

Great post.

I'd like to add that an author should consider the character's age, when choosing to place him/her in a book. If an author is much older than the character's age, and he/she does not have a very close relationship with persons at the character's age (with rare exceptions), then the voice of the character will not come out adequately.

For example, an author being 35 can not write about a 20 year old contemporary (except if he/she has a child, a niece, a very close friend or a class of students at that age, or he/she is an exception to the rule). Sure, the author has been 20 already, but in 15 years (or even less) times have changed, 20-year olds have changed. They don't talk, react, deal as 20-year olds fifteen years before (except if the story is set back in time, close to that time period).

A second thing is taking into consideration nations. A European can't use a character of a nation much different, such as Chinese for example. If the author does not know extremely well the customs, expressions, mentality etc. of the Chinese nation, then the voice again will fail.

In conclusion, the author should know very well the character in many aspects, in order to be able to have a proper POV of the character.

Sorry for the long comment, and thank you for the very interesting article :)

At April 26, 2011 at 8:53 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi K.B.--Well, I spent an hour trying to figure out how to add a "Tweet This" button to Blogger without great success :P. I can add one to the page, but not to individual posts. I'll tackle it again today...thanks for stopping by, thanks for the Tweet, thanks for the suggestion, and thanks for letting me know I wasn't on your blog, because I thought I'd signed up but wasn't showing up!

At April 26, 2011 at 9:12 AM , Blogger K.B. Owen said...

Hi, Cheryl -

Oh, dear, not trying to make you go to so much trouble. I used to use Blogger, and I think it's just a widget that you can add to the page and will show up at the bottom of each post. Can't remember the name of the widget, but it has twitter, Fb, and a few others in a row.

Thanks for re-following my blog, too! :)

At April 26, 2011 at 9:20 AM , Blogger Andrea Mack said...

Cheryl, Angela Ackerman has recently posted about how to do this on Blogger over at The Bookshelf Muse.

At April 26, 2011 at 9:21 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Kathy--

It seems like it should be simple! I've seen it on others' blogs, but can't find a simple widgit to add. Getting closer, tho--I'm messing around with the code, now. I think it's a great idea, and I'm glad you suggested it!

At April 26, 2011 at 9:21 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Andrea--Thank you :) and thanks for stopping by. I checked out your blog, too--it's great!

At April 26, 2011 at 10:04 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

And the verdict is...I'd already set up my blog to show those buttons, but for unknown reasons, it's not working. I have another, parallel blog (the result of a misguided attempt to change my blog name--don't ask) and the buttons DO appear over there. So I guess I have to email Blogger and see if they can help me.

Thanks for pointing me to The Bookshelf Muse, Andrea. That's a terrific blog that I will be reading from here out!

At April 26, 2011 at 10:11 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Jacqvern--Don't apologize for long comments, I love the discussion! Thanks so much for stopping by.

You raise an excellent point--it IS difficult to write about someone who's of another age or culture. I think some authors do it very successfully, but I also think they make a point of spending time with the people they are writing about. I've definitely read works where the character's voice reads more like an adult's than a child's, or otherwise didn't ring true for some reason.

One of my writing friends is writing a book that takes place in the 1960's, when he was a kid. I think that approach works well, too, but I've heard agents say that books in the recent past are a tough sell--not really historical fiction but not contemporary, either.

At April 26, 2011 at 10:45 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Great reminders for writers of all genres. POV is what I see coming across my desk as troublesome by many of the newer writers though it can be fixed easily in most cases.

The article served as a reminder for me :) Thanks,


At April 26, 2011 at 11:02 AM , Blogger Cyprith said...

That really got me thinking. Namely the whole "bad ajectives when you're feeling bad" thing. I'll have to remember to use that. :D

At April 26, 2011 at 11:03 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful insight Cheryl. Once again, it's all about exploring the psychology of the characters. Distancing yourself from your thought process versus how your character thinks is definitely a difficult point. If you're fully immersed in their psychology than the perspective can flow without too much effort.

At April 26, 2011 at 1:31 PM , Blogger Betula said...

I love your blog! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. I've bookemarked it and plan to spend the next few days working my way through all the posts :)

At April 26, 2011 at 8:29 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Sascha: Your comment makes me remember (and cringe) the first chapter I submitted to my first critique group. I didn't even know what POV was at the time! You're right, it's a common problem, but easily fixed once you get the concept :).

Cyprith: Thank you! I get that one from PG Wodehouse, who writes a wonderful short story in which the (recently jilted) main character proclaims that he's not upset--he just happens to like thunderstorms and pestilence and such. It's a great technique!

At April 26, 2011 at 8:32 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Phil--absolutely, it's all about ways to get into the character's psychology. Sometimes one trick will work, sometimes another...eventually we get there!

Hi Clare--thanks so much! I'm glad you stopped by, and greatly appreciate your kind words :). I hope I'll "see" you again!

At May 14, 2011 at 8:14 PM , Blogger Kate Kyle said...

great post, Cheryl. it made me realise that I have yet some work to do before I can start writing my next novel - I need to get a little deeper into my characters minds :)

So far I have been using real people as a basis for building a character, which gave me knowledge about my character's way of perceiving and interacting with the world and other people. And these helped me to get into their head and write from their POV.

At May 16, 2011 at 1:03 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Kate--I don't know, I think sometimes you figure out your characters' minds through the process of writing. It's a circular process: it's nice to know everything about characters and plot before you begin, but sometimes you just have to start in order to figure out the characters and plot.

Your comment about basing characters on real people made me laugh--I was JUST thinking about this point, and am blogging about it this week. I definitely like to base my characters on people I know. As you point out, it's a great way to get a handle on how they would think and react. You just have to make sure they don't recognize themselves, right?

Thanks for stopping by!


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