Monday, September 12, 2005

Tips for Writers Monday: Using POV to Make Your Characters Stand Out

How many of us have ever had a rejection in which the agent/editor says "Loved the premise, but your characters all sound the same?"

Um, me! I'm raising my hand!

The trick to making your characters sound different is to bury yourself really deeply in their head. Become them. Think like they would thinks. Speak like they would speak. Use words they would use. Today we're going to focus on using POV to make your characters stand out from each other.

For example:
A red pickup truck comes peeling around the corner, being driven by the guy from down the street. How would your characters react?

Your hero might notice the following:
*that the truck is sweet
*the engine sounds like it has been seriously taken care of and he'd love to see under that hood
*that the driver is the guy down the street and he has a hard-on for the heroine and is coming to cause trouble

Your heroine might notice the following:
*that truck is coming too close to her flowerbeds and nothing else matters
*that the jerk is gunning his truck too loud and he should be citated for noise pollution
*that she knows who owns that truck and she hopes her makeup still looks good

How does this translate into your story? Well, first, you must determine whose point of view you're in when the truck rolls around the corner. If you're the hero's POV, then all your descriptions of the truck better be what he'd be thinking (see above). If you're in the heroine's POV, then her observations better be what she'd really be thinking (see above).

Next, think about whether there's some detail that you really want to reader to learn. If so, you need to make sure that your POV character would truly notice that detail... (see below for examples):

If it's super important that the reader understand that the truck has been modified for serious off-roading because there have been some bad crimes done in some areas accessible only by 4WD cars, you'd better make sure that the POV character is someone who would really notice that the truck has been souped up. Is our heroine going to be thinking about that if she's freaking out that her prize winning roses are about to get munched? No.

If it's really important for the reader to understand that the truck is being driven recklessly, then make sure the POV character who's observing the reckless driving would truly notice it. A hero who's only concerned about the sweet new tires on the truck would notice how well the truck cornered on those new wheels, not whether the driver took the corner too quickly, but our flower-obsessed heroine would certainly notice the reckless driving. So pick your POV character depending on what information you want the reader to have, and then make sure that the observations of that character match what they'd really notice based on who they are and what they're feeling at the moment.

Other examples:

Most guys aren't going to know the different types of flowers or the names of different fabrics. So if you want the reader to know that the heroine is wearing a pale chartreuse chiffon gown with a corsage of day lilies, then you'd better not be in the hero's POV unless he owns a flower store and designs women's clothes on the side. What would he notice? He'd notice that her breasts look magnificent in that low-cut red dress of sin.

If there's a bar fight going on and you want the reader to understand that the bad guy is more skilled at combat than he should be, you better make sure that you're in the POV of someone who would notice that. If the heroine has just been knocked out and is about to have her throat slit by some a**hole, the hero is not going to be sitting around observing the fighting talents of the man in black off to the right. He's going to be rushing to the heroine's rescue. If the heroine is watching the hero in the middle of the fight, she's going to be worried about his safety and watching for threats to his safety, not engaging in a thoughtful analysis of the combative skills of one of the opponents.

At all times, you need to be thinking about whose head you're in, and you need to make sure that every thought, every observation, every emotion is one that THAT character would have. If their natural response won't pick up the information you want the reader to have, then you need to change POV characters or adjust the situation so the character will be forced to notice that detail, even if it's not really in their nature to do so.

Clear as mud? Hit me up with questions.


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