Article of the Month
Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley
Just as characters have individual voices in dialogue, they can have individual viewpoints too. The unspoken thoughts of the character narrating the scene-- the viewpoint character-- can reflect the distinctive way she perceives the world and the events of the novel.
The first step in individualizing viewpoint is, as always, getting to know your characters. Viewpoint reflects perceptual ability, which varies depending on a person's sensory ability and cognitive skills-- the way we take in information and the way we make use of it.
For example, most of us have one or two dominant senses. I can see you every workday, and I can't describe you. But after a couple phone conversation, I can recognize a voice. So as a viewpoint character, I would not note the hero's looks, beyond a vague realization that he's gorgeous. But his sardonic tone, the catch in his voice as he greets me, the deliberate pace of his speech-- these I would remark on
The questions to ask about a character's viewpoint are: How does this person perceive the world? How does she come to understand her environment? What does she choose to notice and what to ignore, and why? And what does she want to do with what she learns?
To determine the mode of perception, consider the character's profession, for we usually choose to do what we are naturally attuned to. Artists tend to perceive the world through their most developed sense, which will probably be the one they use in their art. An engineer will try to understand the logic, the structure, of what he's perceiving.
Then decide how this way of perceiving will be exhibited. Imagine the character arriving at a raucous party, and having to make sense of the chaos.
A painter will blink, and the chaos will settle into form and color and composition, movable beauty in the ladies' dresses and the balloons and candlelight.
Meanwhile the musician hears a symphony of raised voices and music and ice clinking in glasses and muted sobbing, and knows that the party is at its height.
But sensual perceptivity is not the only way to "absorb" the world. A problem-solver sees the world as a set of problems to be solved. She will walk into a party and notice what's wrong-- the music is too loud, the ice has run out, and a girl is sitting ignored in the corner crying. But though the problem-solver focuses on problems, she is no pessimist; rather she's busy devising solutions-- turning down the stereo, sending her boyfriend into the kitchen for more ice, and comforting the weeper.
Another new arrival, a competitor, sees life as a game. When he enters the party, he will choose a side -- that weeping girl has already been cut-- and scout the opposition and ascertain the prize. He likes to know the rules ahead of time, and expects a fair outcome: The swift ought to win the race, and he ought to go home with the most beautiful woman.
A writer might walk into the same party and see the girl crying in the corner and construct a scenario to explain her sorrow. Reality is only grist for the story mill.
A materialist will scan the crowd and see diamonds and Rolex watches, and calculate the approximate net worth of the party, and never notice the human tragedy in the corner.
Perception, like temperament, is not a single character trait but rather inborn or developed way of interacting with the world. This will be exhibited in consistent if not predictable ways as it locks into place with other aspects of the personality. So perception and temperament need not always "match"-- an artist may be contemplative or exuberant, a problem-solver may be cheerful or lugubrious.
Viewpoint is your chance to show how the character's perceptivity affects his understanding of the world and therefore his response to it.
These are examples of only a few perception types. You'll probably come up with more on your own. Just remember, less is more. Few people are both visually and audially superior, and logical besides. So instead of using all five senses in a sensual scene, consider that the more evocative viewpoint will have one perception dominant. For example, a musical hero would close his eyes the better to hear the music of his lover's sighs, and never even see the fire in her eyes.
Here are some "character" lines. Imagine what sort of perceiver the viewpoint character would be:
1. It was too dark to see his expression, but she heard the injury in his low voice. ("audial"-- learns through her ears, intuitive, can read tone)
2. He glanced around as he entered, locating the windows and doors and plotting the best escape route. (physical, spatially aware, a bit paranoid)
3. "Someone else could probably help you more," she said, but already she was strategizing alternate actions. (problem-solver, caretaker, analytical, interfering)
4. He pondered her motives for calling him. Was she out to hook him again? (suspicious, analytical)
5. David was sitting, arms crossed, leaning away from his brother. Janie realized she had interrupted an argument. (intuitive, visual, can read body language)
6. The mountains below were spread with the scarlet and gold Persian carpet of autumn. (artistic, visual, imaginative)
7. She rubbed her cheek against his chest, feeling his warmth through the threadcare fabric, wishing she had enough money to buy him a decent shirt. (tactile, sensual, caretaking)
8. Only half-listening, he arranged the forks and knives and saltcellars into battalion formation, then leaned over and recruited another squadron from the adjacent table. (military, tactile, engineer-type, but imaginative)
Now look at your own characters, the ones who will serve as the viewpoint characters-- the readers' "eyes and ears" in the story. For each viewpoint character, consider: (I'm using YOU meaning the character-- try free-writing in the character's own voice-- "I learn best by...") (You don't have to answer ALL these questions. <G>)
1. How do you learn best? Observation? Participation? Trial and error? Rumination and cogitation? Consulting experts? Writing?
2. How open are you to new ideas and information? Do you change your mind frequently, based on what people have told you? Are you a traditionalist, deciding on the basis of "what's always been"? If someone is arguing with you, are you more likely to change your mind or dig in your heels? What if the arguer is right?
3. When you walk into a party, what do you notice first? The mood? The people? The decorating? The things needing to be fixed? The background music? The food on the buffet table? Whether you fit in?
4. Is one sense more highly developed than another? For instance, do you tend to take in the world primarily through vision? "I'll believe that when I see it!" Or are you more audial? Do you determine if a person is lying by the tone of voice? Do you love to talk on the phone? Don't forget the sixth sense-- intuition. (This aspect can give you all sorts of plot leads-- a visual person might need to learn that appearances can be deceiving; an audial person might learn about a murder because she's been
eavesdropping. Remember also that an artist's narration of a scene will use very different terms than a musician's will.)
5. Do you usually notice problems around you? What is your response? Do you write an angry letter to the editor? shrug and move on? analyze what's wrong and how to fix it? take it as evidence that the world is falling apart? What about problems within yourself?
6. Would you say you were an optimist or a pessimist? Would your friends agree? How would you react if your life suddenly took a turn for the worse? Are you prepared for that? Do you notice when your life is going well? Does that make you happy?
7. Are you more interested in the past or the future, or do you live in the now? Are you one to keep holiday traditions? Do you reminisce about days gone by? Are you sentimental about objects, like your mother's handmirror or your first baseball glove? How hard would it be to move from your present home? How long would you keep in touch with your friends back in the old town? How long would it take you to make new
8. How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? with this person? First impressions? Intuition? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
Alicia Rasley is a 14-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:
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Go to previous articles:
Quick Character Motivation Exercise
Dazzling Dialogue Tips
The Submission Journey
Suspense Is More Than Surprise
Scenes on Fire!
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes
On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening
Tightening the Sagging Middle
Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium
The Publishing Journey
Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers
Setting and Character Interactions
Developing the Dark Moment
The Promise of the Hot Premise
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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