Karina M. Sokulski
Through Your Character's Eyes
What’s a story without characters? Characters are a reader’s pilot through emotion, experience, and perspective. They’re a reactionary window into a world of problems, solutions, and relatability. Telling a story through a character’s perspective provides a reader personal connection. A reader connecting with a protagonist is the equivalent of accepting an author’s invitation to go on a journey. Writing an invitation worthy of a reader’s interest is the real weight of a good character.
A character’s point of view is how the writer conveys what’s occurring in the world and how the character reacts to it. There are four types of point of view in narrative fiction to choose from:
First person: This point of view places the protagonist as the narrator of the story. The perspective limits the reader to the protagonist’s internal and external experiences.
Second person: This point of view uses a “narrative voice” that engages directly with the reader. The use of “you, you’re and your” pronouns draw the reader into being part of the narrative action.
Third person, limited: This point of view places the narrator outside of the story and relates the experiences of the protagonist.
Third person, omniscient: This point of view places the narrator outside of the story and grants the reader the thoughts and experiences of every character.
First and third person depend more on a character’s motivations and voice influencing the narrative. When your protagonist takes on the role of narrator, you'll need a clear understanding of their personality. Consider the following when developing your characters:
What do they like?
What do they dislike?
What makes them excitable?
What makes them uncomfortable?
What are they cautious about?
What do they fail to notice?
Mabel hated almonds.
She hated the sweltering Indian heat that layered a sheen of sweat beneath her blouse. It was almost as detestable as the stink of the market and rambunctious calls from the street vendors. Being considered 'cultured' was worth its weight in certain circles. She just had to survive the next three weeks in Varanasi before she could return to the safety of east Manhattan. If one stripped away the layers of torment Mabel suffered, they'd discover a percolating anticipation. The anticipation of shoving this latest excursion in that pig-faced Annalise's face would do her in before the dehydration did.
From the above example, we can glean the following:
Mabel hates almonds
She hates the heat
She's is complaining a lot
She doesn't like the atmosphere around her
She's competitive towards someone back home
She has a negative outlook on the rest of her adventure
While exhibiting your character's likes and dislikes are a start, they're not enough. Referring to the same example a second time, what else can we glean about the character?
Mabel is some manner of socialite
She may be more accustomed to the conveniences of industrial Manhattan
She is concerned with status in social circles
This adventure she is on is a means towards a greater goal
The "pig-faced Annalise" is someone she considers a rival
Mabel cares enough about her social status she's travelled somewhere she clearly doesn't enjoy being
Mabel's status and her competitive rivalry takes priority to her actual adventure in another country
The above criteria was gleaned from Mabel's perception of the world around her. Notice how her priorities appeared in the narrative. How the character perceives her surroundings as unpleasant. A trial she has to undergo for a greater goal. The most important aspect of a character to touch on is their perception of the world. Consider the following when writing your character into the story's world:
What does your character notice that others don't?
How do first impressions affect your character's perception of others?
How does this perception affect your character's ability to socialize?
How does the character's perception of their place in the world?
How has this perception justified the protagonist undergoing a journey?
Characters are always subject to change over the span of their arc. Change always starts with a shift in perspective. Whether another character or event inspires that shift, what the character perceives at first must be made clear at the story's start. When this is accomplished, the shift that occurs later in the story will be all the more meaningful. Especially when this shift results the deepening of character relationships.
The friends our characters make along the journey are almost as important as the adventure itself. How a protagonist forges friendships is another important aspect of developing a character. Who occupies your character's social circle? Is your character the upstart socialite on a mission to rub elbows with old money? Or has your protagonist surrounded themselves with an ensemble cast of misfits? Consider the following when developing your character's relationships:
What in your character's perception of their circumstances leads them to enlist the help of your side characters?
What does your protagonist value in the relationships they form?
What do your side characters see that your protagonist does not?
How dependent upon one another are they because of this?
Example: The by-the-book paladin knight will always see the best in people and be surprised when he's tricked or mislead. The rogue he's enlisted for help, on the other hand, can read con artists like the back of his hand. The duo are foils of one another but symbiotic in their abilities to compensate for each others' perceptive shortcomings. The by-the-book knight values the cynical rogue's street smarts. The cynical rogue finds the by-the-book knight's optimism and recognition refreshing.
A story with multiple protagonists means a story that conveys multiple perceptions of the world. Each protagonist of a narrative needs to share an equal standing among a cast. Ideally each protagonist in this world should convey to the reader a different experience from their counterparts. Each protagonist should convey how their experience of the world has colored them. This is particularly important because expressing how different your protagonists are from one another will add diversity to your world. Consider the following when developing multiple protagonists in a story:
What kind of character arcs are each of your protagonists facing in the story?
How do your protagonists' experiences differ from one another at the beginning of the story?
What is it that brings your protagonists together?
Are your protagonists brought together willingly?
How do your multiple protagonists perceive one another?
What do each of your protagonists bring to the table?
Is one protagonist out-shinning the others too much?
Are your multiple protagonists symbiotic?
Are the protagonists constantly causing each other trouble?
With a characters' circumstances and relationships established, what comes next is growth. It's the wisening and humbling that comes from new experiences and unexpected challenges. The revealing of secrets and breaking of false narratives. The payoff of an event that forever changes the protagonist we met at the story's beginning. Consider the following when exploring the character's shift in perspective:
What along the journey has caused your protagonist to reevaluate what they know?
How has this event forever changed your character?
What is your protagonist learning/relearning/unlearning about themselves?
Are there burdens upon your protagonist that have been made lighter?
Are there burdens your protagonist may now lay down all together?
What is your protagonist learning/relearning/unlearning about the world?
How does your character view their place in the world now?
What is your protagonist learning/relearning/unlearning about other people?
Are there relationships that will suffer because of this discovery?
Are there relationships that will strengthen because of this discovery?
Every journey ends with reflection. Who the character is now and what lessons they've learned appear across the story's final pages. If this end is part of a larger journey yet to come, how has the character's outlook changed? Does this character see their journey's end as satisfactory or severe? When approaching the end of your character's journey, consider the following questions:
What value did this lesson have for the character?
What do these lessons communicate thematically to your reader?
What is your character's new outlook on life?
What is your character's new outlook on the road ahead?
What, if any, unfinished business does your character now face?
Is your character satisfied with the outcome of the journey?
Are your character's accomplishments strong enough to outweigh their regrets?
A world seen through our character's eyes can be an enticing and vivid experience readers cheer for. Getting readers to connect with your characters means letting the reader know what they're all about. How does your character perceive the world around them? What is it your protagonist wishes for when no one's looking? What important lessons, and relationships, does your character gain by story's end? See the world through your character's eyes and let them be the ones to tell you.