Writing Craft Vol. 3: Who’s telling the story?

We will talk more later about points of view in Writing Craft, Volume 4: Keeping the Reader Trapped In Your Story. But I do need to address a few points about creating point of view characters, because they are vital to how you write setting!

You can’t write setting without a point of view character or a narrator! Someone has to tell the story, even if it’s a carefully curated version of you, the author. There’s no such thing as an “objective” point of view—although there are definitely points of view that perceive themselves as being objective when they really aren’t. The best that we humans can hope to achieve in our points of view are “fair” or “relatively unbiased,” as in good journalistic reporting.

The reason that this lack of objectivity is so important is that everything in your story is filtered through the point of view character’s, well, point of view.

If the story is one that stays very close to the point of view character, then you can only see what that character sees, hear what they hear…and think what they think. Everything in the story is colored or flavored by the point of view character’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

Why is the point of view character’s perception of the events so important?

Even if you never name the point of view character (for example, an unnamed narrator), that character is important for several reasons:

  • We are used to listening to stories from people who have limited perceptions of a situation and who have strong opinions—that’s how we talk about the events in our everyday lives.
  • People remember events more easily when the events trigger an emotion.
  • When we understand where someone is coming from, it’s easier to listen to them—even if we don’t believe a word they say.

A well-told story takes advantage of how our brains work in order to create a “real” world for the reader.

On its own, a description of setting (whether it’s the “rules” of the story or the physical setting) can be boring.

But the same description, colored by emotion, feels interesting and important, because of the way our brains function.

For example, think of a famous piece of art. If you write down an “objective” description of that piece of art to describe it to someone else, your description will be dull. The person you’re describing the art to would be better off just looking at that piece of art!

Now let’s say you’re a con artist trying to sell a forged piece of art by that same famous artist. In order to fool your victim into buying the art, you might instead tell them through angry tears that the reason you’re selling the art on the cheap is as revenge against your spouse. You tell the victim that the spouse bought the art for your as a love-gift, and that you no longer wants to see or hear of that piece of art ever again.

You almost wouldn’t need to describe the art at all!

How to Build a Point of View Character Quickly

Point of view characters can play a major role in a story; they can also be nearly invisible. Either way, their perception of the story needs to be clear more or less immediately.

Not even the writer needs to know for certain who the point of view character is!

What needs to be immediately clear is the point of view character’s method of telling stories.

  • First person (“I”), third person (“they”), or the rare second person (“you”).
  • Present tense (“I am”), past tense (“I was”), or the rare future tense (“I will”).
  • How the narrator feels about the story—this can be subtle as long as it’s clear!

For bonus points with readers, also include an attitude problem possessed by the point of view character, such as snarkiness, moodiness, vanity, profane rationality, or sheer bloody-mindedness.

Personally, when I’m coming up with a point of view character on a deadline, I will do the following:

  • Figure out what I’m particularly annoyed about that day.
  • Brainstorm four or five different ways people deal with that annoyance badly.
  • Identify the attitude problem that goes along with most interesting option.
  • Come up with a name and a role or job title that connects them with the setting.
  • Fill in the rest of the details as I write.

So let’s say I’m annoyed at an intrusive comment on social media that was clearly made to proselytize someone else’s opinion using my platform.

Some ways I could deal with that badly are: to get entangled in an argument, to backstab that person elsewhere, to generalize everyone with the same opinion as being inherently rude, or to find out where they live and leave a bag of dog poo at their front door.

I’m going to say the “bag of poo” option is the most interesting; the attitude problem behind it might be patience combined with poor impulse control. I’ll say that we’re writing the sci-fi story from above with the screen that says “31-3-2057 London” and showing a Vauxhall hovercar.

My point of view character is now someone who, in a future London, has left a bag of poo at someone else’s door.

To come up with a name and role or job title, I’m going to play with a few elements. Who would be very likely to be annoyed at social media comments in a future London, and respond with a bag of dog poo? I could focus on the social media aspect, the nature of the response, or the location of London.

Different writers will go in different directions at this point, and their stories will diverge wildly.

I’m going to say that my point of view character is non-immediate family to the insulter (which is why the crime is so personal with the dog poo) and that the person is working a terrible job involving deliveries that would make them angry and resentful about the hovercar. I’m going to say the character has to do bicycle deliveries in an age of hovercars, and his name is Bert and he looks like Dick Van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins (because I have a song from the movie stuck in my head).

Whatever you pick is fine, as long as the point of view character has flaws and it all makes sense to or amuses you.

In essence, you don’t want a character who is going to handle the situation maturely and gracefully on the first try, or at least someone who doesn’t seem like they will. We’ll talk more about conflict in the next section, but for now know that you’re looking for a character who generates conflict at some level.

It’s hard to write a story about Sherlock Holmes from the character’s own point of view; that’s why Watson tells most of the stories. If you look at the best Sherlock pastiches and retellings that happen to be from Sherlock’s point of view, you will usually see an emphasis on his character flaws rather than his intelligence and objectivity as such.

For narrators, you can still use the same character! They can either be like Watson, and be part of the story, or they can be an invisible narrator who just happens to be that character.

(Next time: we walk through assembling the character and setting at the opening of a story, then again at the check-ins.)

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