Friday, March 30, 2012

Characterization through Point of View

My last couple of posts have looked at the challenges of viewpoint. But point of view is also a great tool, and one that can be fun. You can let your readers know more about your character, and how he or she sees the world. This is especially helpful if you’re writing about an unusual time or place, as in historical fiction, fantasy or science fiction. Regardless of genre, viewpoint can help your readers get to know your main character. 

Here’s an excerpt from The Well of Sacrifice

Feather was beautiful even as a child. She had reddish-brown skin, smooth and glossy like wet clay. Her dark, slanting eyes were crossed, and her high forehead was flattened back in a straight line from her long nose. ... Her only desire was to marry a noblemen so she would be allowed to wear gold and jade and to inlay her front teeth with bits of jade. ... I knew that I would never come near Feather in beauty....

This passage shows the narrator’s envy of her sister’s beauty, and therefore her feelings about her own looks. It also gives the reader insight into Mayan standards of beauty, so different from our own. Here’s a place where it’s okay to “tell” the reader that a character is beautiful, rather than simply “showing” it through the description. Description alone might make readers think that Feather was unattractive, so we need Eveningstar’s opinion for balance.

You can reveal both characterization and cultural information in third-person viewpoint as well. Here’s a passage from Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, in Alabama around 1920:

    J.C. heard a shout. He turned to see one of the landowner’s sons, Lawrence Cannon.
    “What are you looking at?” Lawrence said.
    “Nothing,” J.C. said. “I was just looking.” He smiled. His father had told him, always smile when you talk to white people. Be careful what you say.

And here’s a third-person example from my contemporary novel The Mountain (not yet published):

    Soon the river widened and water swirled slowly in a deep pool along one side. Surely a few fish would be hanging out there, where the swimming was easy but the water moved fast enough to bring in lots of fresh food. Jesse dropped to his hands and knees and crawled forward, keeping out of sight of the river. Trout were smart; if they saw your shadow or your silhouette they wouldn’t bite.
    He sat on a sunny boulder, ran the fishing line from the reel out through the ring at the end, and tied on a hook. He started to tie on a fake fly, then stopped. It was illegal to use live bait for trout fishing, because it made catching them too easy. But Jesse wasn’t fishing for sport; he was fishing for dinner. And suddenly he didn’t want to spend all day at it. He was always the good kid, the one people hardly noticed. What did he ever get for it?

I hope we learn a lot about Jesse from this passage. We see that he’s comfortable in the outdoors, and a good fisherman, even though I don’t say so outright. We also learn something about his personality, and a change he might be starting to go through.

Whatever point of view you use, try to show your readers how your main character sees the world. The following exercises can help you explore characterization through point of view. Feel free to post your results in the comments!

•    Describe a character from the POV of his or her best friend. Now from the POV of an ex.
•    Describe someone sitting in a field, lonely and sad. Then describe someone sitting in a field, enjoying the day.
•    Write about a time when your health altered your senses, such as a bout of vertigo, or a cold that interfered with your senses of smell and taste. 
•    Describe a heavy rain from the point of view of two or more of the following: a farmer during a drought; a child who wants it to snow; a thirsty flower; a pet dog who is outside and wants to get in; a weather reporter; someone driving home on dark roads.

1 comment:

  1. Nice examples of how to use p.o.v. And nice exercises, too. Thanks.