Friday, March 1, 2013

Let Your Readers Love Your Characters

How does a writer make the reader shout for joy or weep with sorrow?  Through the characters.

There's something about falling in love with a fictional character that sometimes makes the reader wonder why.  Is it because he's so sexy?  Because she's so sweet?   Or is it because the author let us get to know the characters so well that readers almost believed they were real?

The secret to creating the best characters is letting the reader get to know them intimately.  That's done by using POV. Point Of View.

What is POV and How is It Used?

POV is being in a character's head.  This is done not only through dialogue and action, but through thoughts and emotions.  Only that character can think, feel, and describe through his or her eyes and ears what the other character is saying and doing.

Through our POV character we can show the physical reaction of the other character and hear words spoken, then reach a conclusion of that other character's emotions.  Expressions and body language for the non-POV character can tell a lot.  A frown tells us the other is unhappy, sad or angry.  A smile (seemingly real) can show acceptance, assurance or happiness.  But it's only the POV character who gives us not only a glimpse, but the full deal character.

We use internal thoughts, feelings and physical reaction to show the heart and mind of a character beneath the outer shell.  While the POV character may be saying one thing, an internal thought shows the reader why it's being said, how he/she feels about it, and how it affects physically by things like increased heart rate, an internal wave of heat or cold, butterflies in the midsection and many more.

Let's take FEAR for an example.  (I'm using The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angel Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, available in digital form at online bookstores and in PDF at the Bookshelf Muse blog.  I highly recommend this book!)

What are the sensations a character feels internally, when gripped by fear?  Most often, we can't speak.  There's that racing heart, a knot in the stomach, dizziness and more.  If the POV character is watching someone experience fear, he/she might see signs of these things (face growing pale, white knuckles, stuttering or hesitant speech), but not feel the emotions.  The POV character can't know what the other person is thinking and can even be confused by outward signs.  Only the POV character can feel these things.

The mistake that happens the most often with a new writer is when a character describes her physical self.  Some use the mirror trick, but just how many of us are really honest about our appearance?  *My long, raven hair bounces when I walk.  My bright blue eyes are mesmerizing.*  But, really, is that how we think of ourselves?  Is that how we would describe ourselves to someone?  Instead, we'll say something common, such as "I have dark, almost black hair, and my eyes are blue."  Then comes the clothing that we sneak in to dress the character, but we'll tackle description a a later time.

I've used the POV character's clothing, usually sparingly, to do different things beyond a simple description.  In the instance below, it was brief and helped show the character's state-of-mind.
The sheriff approached, casting a shadow into the car.  Slowly, wishing she could disappear, Trish pushed the button to roll down her window.  But instead of greeting the sheriff with a smile, she continued to stare at the misty scene before her, hoping the knitted cap she wore would hide her blonde hair and her identity until she could stop her heart from racing. (The Lawman's Little Surprise) 
After that, the only thing we know about the other character (the sheriff) is what is seen through Trish's eyes.
Having car trouble, miss?”
She turned slowly, wishing she could be anyplace but where she was.
“You’re back,” Morgan Rule said, his voice flat and matter-of-fact.  
She tried her best to ignore his frown and the lack of emotion in his voice.  “You knew I’d be home before Kate’s wedding and Christmas.”
Later, in the same scene...
Placing his hands on the window opening, he leaned down, his dark gaze connecting with hers.  “Our wedding was cancelled.  You had other things to do.  I don’t see a reason to be friends.”
“I postponed our wedding,” she pointed out, while attempting to remain calm.  “You were the one who cancelled it.”
A flicker of emotion crossed his face, something she couldn’t recognize, and was gone.  His eyes betrayed nothing.  
All of the above is in one character's POV.  In fact, the entire scene is from Trish's point of view.  The next scene is in Morgan's POV and shows his reaction to what had happened.  This is often called a sequel to to the previous scene, where we get to know just how he'd felt and reacted.
It had taken every bit of control Sheriff Morgan Rule had to keep from going after Trish and retracting everything he’d said to her.  But he wouldn’t do it.  Not now, not ever.  
He’d been so proud of her when her children’s book had been bought by a well-known publisher, and he’d thought he’d finally found peace and happiness.  He should have known better.  Instead of peace, one incident with the town drunk had brought back the memories he’d thought he’d buried and reminded him that he could never have a life like most men.  He hadn’t meant to hurt Trish, but to save her.  And now, because he didn’t trust his heart, he had to say and do things he knew were hurtful—to both of them.
Now we have a hint as to why the sheriff reacted to Trish the way he did in the first scene, as the second scene opens. 

Head-hopping vs. POV Purist

I admit it.  I'm a POV purist.  Which is not to say that several best-selling authors aren't able to pull off what's known as head-hopping.  It can happen, but head-hopping from one character's POV to another can also be confusing if not done very, very well.  Why torture yourself (and maybe even a reader) by trying to show too much at once, when you can do it with practice and ease?

It's true that we hear the conversations or our characters in our heads.  At least I do.  I want to know what each character is thinking, what each character is feeling.  But if I'm having to jump back and forth, from one person's thoughts and feelings to another's thoughts and feelings, I don't get to know them as well as I would if I'd been able to stay in one character's head for a decent amount of time.  Sure, we want to know what each character is feeling, but when those feelings are bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, from the head of one character to the head of the other, we never really get to know them as well as we might.

Being a POV Purist means taking a character to the deepest level and staying there long enough to show those emotions that the reader needs and wants to see.  It's also a great way to keep a reader turning the pages at the end of a scene or chapter, instead of putting the book down and turning off the light.  At the end of the scene, the reader should want to know what's going on with the other character.

As a purist, I keep to one POV per scene, and usually--not always--move back and forth with a change of POV for each scene.  It keeps me honest. :)  Still, I'll admit that a handful of times, I've switched mid-scene in the last of the book.  It can be done, but it takes practice and knowing how to do it without confusing the reader.  Because I'm not solidly confident, I keep it to a rare minimum.  One of my best writer friends sometimes changes POV mid-way through scenes throughout her books, but once out of one head and into the other, she stays with the second.  It works well for her, and she knows how to do it seamlessly. The reader knows instantly that she's now in the other character's POV and will stay there.

It's the switching POV every few lines or paragraphs that can be confusing.

Anyone who has read older romances can attest to the fact that things have changed.  Forty years ago, romance stories were written in only the heroine's POV.  Now we have the luxury of reading how the hero is feeling and thinking, and it's much more fun, not only for the reader, but for the writer.  Just be sure your hero's inner thoughts and feelings are those of a male, not a female.  Yes, there is a difference!  And vive la diff√©rence!

POV is one of the many things we need to keep in mind as we're writing.  I've caught myself switching and not realizing it, then having to go back and change it.  Becoming the mind of your characters can help.  Use POV as an aid to deepening the emotion in your story, and you'll soon be writing stories that make your readers fall in love with your books.
Study the rules so that you won't beat yourself by not knowing something. — Babe Didricksen Zaharias 

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