Letting Your Characters be Who They Are (A Deeper Look Into Point of View)

Point of view is one of those tricky subjects we often struggle with as writers.  I know I’ve been trying to get a solid understanding on this since I started seriously writing back in late 2007.  Just the other day while I was reading one of my children’s newsletters from school, I came across something that gave me an “a-ha!” moment.

idea for blog post
ID 34477816 © Raywoo | Dreamstime.com

(You know you’re a writer when you read something totally unrelated to writing and make it relevant to writing.) 😀

So anyway, this tidbit in the newsletter was about student behavior.  Here’s the gist of it…

An event happens.  The event in itself is neutral.  BUT it is the person’s perception of the event that influences their behavior.

And that’s when the lightbulb lit up above my head.  So what did I do?  I did the first thing any writer trying to come up with a blog post topic would do.  I made notes on what I wanted to write for this post.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend (and fellow writer) who was getting stuck in her story.  Her character wasn’t doing or saying the things she would say and do.  That being the case, she didn’t know how to proceed with the scene.

That got me thinking.  How many times do we impose our own mentalities onto our characters instead of letting the characters be who they really are?  Our job as writers is to tell the character’s story.  It is their story, not ours.  If we want to tell our own story, we need to write an autobiography.  If we want to do fiction, we need to let the character tell his or her own story in the way they want.

So when we’re writing, I think we’d be better off putting ourselves in the character’s shoes.  See things through the character’s eyes.  Take into consideration the character’s background, religious (or lack of) convictions, prejudices (we all have them), hopes, and goals.  When an event in the story happens, we need to perceive that event through the character’s point of view.

Your job as the writer is to step aside and let the character believe what they want about the event, regardless of whether or not they are right.  Misunderstandings about something can be a great way of opening conflict in a story.  How often have you heard one side of the story and then learned the other side?  How often would you say two opposing viewpoints both had valid points after you listened to each person tell you what they think?

It’s no different with characters.  One character might see an event in a very positive light while another might think it’s the worst thing that has ever happened.  That is fine.  Go with it.  Let the character with the point of view have that perception. And when that character has perceived it in a certain way, have him react to it based on his personality.

blog post on character and point of view
ID 34477816 © Raywoo | Dreamstime.com

When I was in high school, I was in a play, and to this day, I remember the director (aka drama teacher) saying, “Good acting is reacting.” In the same way, good writing is allowing the character to react in a way that makes sense for him, given his history, baggage, prejudices, etc, to react.  The character might change eventually or might not.  But either way, that character has a right to react to an event that makes the best sense to that character.

For example, a character who has spent his childhood hiding from bullies isn’t likely to react bravely to someone who threatens him.  He will need to build himself up and overcome that tendency to run off before his is ready to confront the person threatening him.  It won’t happen overnight.  That’s where personal growth and struggle can come in for the character.

Even if you, as the author, face challenges head on and tackle them right away, your character might not be the same way.  It’s okay for your character to be different from you.  In fact, I think it’s great if you experiment with different personality types when you’re writing.  Too many times we try to impose who we are on the characters, and this can be very limiting.

Think about it.  If you write the same type of characters all the time, how different will your stories really be?  There are only so many plots available.  It’s how the characters react to the events (aka plots) that make the story unique.

You might get feedback from a reader who says, “I hated that character.  I never would have done (fill in the blank).”  The reader has every right to hate the character because the character didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations (based on the reader’s background, personality type, etc).  But does that mean the character was wrong to do what the character did?  Absolutely not.  The character has his own way of looking at the world, and this particular way of looking at the world just happens to be at odds with the reader’s way of looking at the world.

Remember: you will NEVER please EVERYONE.  So don’t even waste your time trying.  It’s okay to have haters on your book.  It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer.  It just means your book isn’t that reader’s cup of tea.  Books, just like points of view, are subjective.

Back to the post:

Think about real life.  We all have our own point of view on everything that happens around us.  We react to these events based on our point of view.  Another person we know will have a different point of view and react differently than we do.  It’s normal.  Life would be boring if we were all the same.

So embrace these differences when you’re writing.  Give your character the freedom to be his own person.  Even if that character is different from you, let him react to things that are appropriate for him.  I think it will help you develop more well-rounded and meaningful characters if you embrace differences instead of trying to fight them.

8 Comments

  1. Ron Fritsch says:

    I think this post nails what fiction should be: characters who tell their own stories, not the author’s. All writers of fiction would do well to read and consider what Ruth says here.

    1. Thank you, Ron. Coming from you, that means a lot. I have a lot of respect for you and how professional you’ve always been. 🙂

  2. Great post! I know when I get stuck if I stop and run through the characters and say “Okay, what is so-and-so’s motivation here. What do they think of this?” I’ll get unstuck 🙂

    1. That’s a good idea to look at their motivation. I hadn’t thought of using that trick. I’m going to in the future. Thanks!

  3. This is a post for all writers–novice and experienced!

    1. Thank you, Norma! I really appreciate that. 🙂

  4. I find what’s really challenging is to get into the bad guy’s mind. I know this might sound odd, but I think writing the bad guy’s character is a lot of fun. It’s so different than my real personality, I like to stretch my boundaries a bit.

    1. I love writing the villain. It’s fun to explore the dark side. I think it’s stretching our boundaries, like you said.

Comments are closed.