How to keep your characters from feeling interchangeable? (2/2)
Last week I talked about making sure each character from a specific book feels unique. Today I’m going to talk about the second way characters can feel interchangeable.
That is, from book to book each point of view character reads just like the last point of view character. This is an issue that will lead to burn-out from your readers, because well, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all! That’s…not a response you want your readers to have. You want them to feel like your stories are all experiences, each one wonderful, but so very different.
There’s a few ways to help make sure you don’t fall into the trap of the same-old, same-old point of view character just with serial numbers filed off and a new name and face slapped on.
In my previous post, I mostly talked about character, but this time around, I’m talking voice. When writing from a perspective, you’re writing with a specific voice in mind. That voice will dictate EVERYTHING in a story.
Description: What does this point of view character notice? What would they take time to examine? What makes them perk up? What makes them passionate? What could they study for hours?
A good example you can check out is Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. In this novel, Poirot interviews four different characters, all of whom describe the exact same room where a murder took place. Each of those four characters gives a vastly different description based on their personalities. Reading those differences and how it affects the story is a great example for understanding how to focus a particular character’s voice when crafting the description of a setting. (Please note: I’m more talking about points of view that are character-driven in some way, since in objective view would preclude a description via a person’s view.)
Inner Dialogue/Musing: What does this character care about? What are they constantly thinking about? What is important to them? What sneaks in when it shouldn’t? What isn’t there that another character would have noticed?
A great example to check out this idea is a middle-grade novel by Greg Van Eekhout by the name of Cog. In this novel, the main character is in love with platypuses and despite the fact that platypuses have literally nothing to do with the story at large, the character likes to give you information about them because that’s who he is and how he distracts himself when he’s stressed. This is a great example of how certain things work in the view of one character, but if you were to swap the point of view with anyone else, wouldn’t work at all.
Another great example is The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. In this novel, the character jumps from body to body, and each person he inhabits alters the way he thinks, what he focuses on, etc. Here we have the same character, yet he feels slightly different depending on whether he’s inhabiting a doctor or a cop.
Dialogue: Does this character have a particular way they speak? Can you fold that into the narrative since the narrative is their voice as well? What sorts of things would they never, ever think? What sorts of things make the most sense for them to assume? How does their voice alter depending on what they’re thinking or seeing?
For extreme examples, consider A Clockwork Orange or Flowers for Algernon.
(As another example from my own novels–Referring to Lost Isle, you’d be less likely to want a book written from Ben’s perspective because in order to really get him right, I would have to do a bit more flubbing with words. I wouldn’t push his accent as hard as I did in dialogue, but I would definitely need to find ways to get it in there, make you feel like you’re reading with his voice and not Edwin’s.)
But don’t think that you have to go crazy in order to get the inner workings of a narrative to feel distinct. You don’t have to go A Clockwork Orange. You just have to figure out what your character sounds like and implement that in the narrative writing itself. Don’t use big words if the character would use small ones. Don’t use US slang if the character grew up in the UK.
Motivation/Beliefs: The things that drive this character won’t be the same that drove the last one, so what does this character already know that a previous point of view character didn’t know? What does this character want that is different from other characters you’ve written before? What does this character think about a particular person? And how is that different from what another character thinks about the same person?
In any book with multiple perspectives, it should be easy to differentiate when the point of view changes. Should be, being the key words there.
Think about a time when you struggled to remember in whose perspective you were in while reading a chapter. Think about the times when you thought you were in Character A’s perspective only to realize that no, you were in Character B’s perspective. Those are great examples of what not to do. Some YA books try to get around this by naming their sections literally after the point of view character. James/Caroline/James/Caroline over and over again. You should never have to do this. Ever. Your perspectives should be absolutely clear immediately, even if you use first person perspective.
The way to do this is remember that none of them think the same thing about all things in life. Even your best friends have slightly different beliefs or like slightly different things. If we were to ever read a story in Hermione Granger’s point of view, we would expect her to be excited about school and lessons and learning. We would never expect her to think, “Ugh, class time. I have to get up,” because that wouldn’t be her.
One example you can check out:
SPOILER ALERT FOR GOOD OMENS THE TV SHOW!! SCROLL TO NEXT BOLD IF WANT TO AVOID!!
At the end of Good Omens, two of the characters switch places/bodies. Go back and rewatch and you’ll see a few key elements, such as: what kind of ice cream they grab, how they walk, where they stand, how they sit. One stands in the middle of a street–something the other would never do. One gets in a taxi–something the other would never do. These are slight differences, yet they make it clear as day that something’s up here, something’s different.
END SPOILER ALERT!!
If you need help practicing voice, here are a few suggestions:
1) Same room, different person
Write a description of a room from one person’s perspective. Now, go back and write the same exact room from a different person’s perspective. Try different types of people. Mother/child. Homeowner/renter. Wife/husband. Try different types of rooms. A library: someone who loves books/someone who’s indifferent. A pool: someone who can swim/someone who can’t. A space station: a scientist/a child.
Keep these short and small, just enough to show how their feelings/personality would affect what they see and how you would write them.
2) Arguments for argument’s sake
Pin two people on two separate sides of an argument and write their dialogue. However! You MUST craft a well-thought out argument for the person you might not agree with. In fact, try to make the person you don’t agree with MORE convincing than the person you do agree with.
You want to write convincing villains, don’t you? ;)
3) Rewrite scenes
If you’re worried about taking a side character and making them a point of view character in a different novel, this is your best bet to figuring out if you’re there. Take a scene where the side character is featured and rewrite the entire scene, but from that side character’s perspective. Now, give that scene to someone who read your original story and ask if you’ve managed to match the side character’s voice well enough to how they came across when they were just a side character.
This last one is actually how I practice voice when I’m unsure if I’ll get a character right when I know it’s inherently important I do so.
This was a long one. Whoa. I’m out! XD