When we read stories we need to feel as if the people we are reading about are real so we can identify with (and thereby care about) them.
Reader-identification is a vital aspect of any successful story, so it is our job, as writers, to make sure the characters we portray are described in such a way as to hold a reader’s interest from the start. The secret lies in making your readers care about what happens to these characters.
To achieve this, their creator must care too. If not, it will show. They will simply become cardboard cut-outs and quite unbelievable or even boring. Usually, you will have several characters, but one should stand out as the central figure – the one you identify with most yourself. So ask yourself whose story this is.
Suppose you are writing about a man and a woman who are in disagreement about something. Decide which of the two you most identify with and then relate the story from that person’s viewpoint. The other person, plus any other subsidiary characters, will have their own points of view conveyed, but only as seen through the eyes of the main character. The chief distinction usually made between points of view is between first-person and third-person narratives.
Because this method uses ‘I’ and ‘me’ all the way through, nothing can happen unless it is seen or heard by this person, or related to him or her. This sort of narrative has obvious limitations, as the plot must be carefully planned to avoid the need for episodes that occur when the viewpoint character is absent. And the style must be adhered to, keeping it in character throughout.
Here, the viewpoint character is referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’. This is a sound method and usually the most popular, as it gives us more scope. It makes for strength and solidarity, particularly in a short story, and allows us to relate an absorbing tale with fewer restrictions than when we are adhering to the first-person narrative.
Multiple third-person narratives
Characters here are seen objectively and defined as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’. The author gets inside their minds and weaves a story culminating in a conclusion that affects each of them (sometimes happily but occasionally adversely) – and on the way, the reader is able to absorb the varying points of view set down in entirely separate scenes. This method works much better in a novel, as a short story is always more effective when approached from a single viewpoint perspective.
With this sort of framework, the main character is usually an onlooker who tells a story about other people from a distance. Everything could be related by someone not too closely involved – for example, a staid old bachelor might describe the torrid love life of his young nephew. The account would be quite different if related by the nephew himself, of course. The omniscient narrator technique is often more suited to a leisurely or humorous tale, but its use requires skill or you run the risk of distancing your characters from your readers. This approach was more popular a century ago than it is now.
Consider this quote from the well-known novelist Nina Bawden: ‘You know people better in a novel than in real life because you know what the characters think – not just what they say they think.’ So, when writing, you need to decide which of your characters reveal their true thoughts and which of them will say only what they choose to say, which may not be the same thing at all.
It is extremely important, then, to know who your viewpoint character is going to be before you set down a word. If you plan to write a story about a mugging, for example, you could write an account from the third-person aspect, visualising the victim as a stranger – or you could relate everything in first person, as if you yourself were the one being mugged (or, indeed, the mugger).
The impact of either version should be equally powerful, but the reader’s sympathies can be directed exactly where you want them to be, depending on your choice of viewpoint. Similarly with a story focusing on a middle-aged couple. Let us assume their son has been taken to a police station on some charge (a fight, possession of drugs, drink-driving or whatever) or perhaps their daughter has just announced she is leaving home to live with a man they consider to be a no-good drifter. The effect of your tale will depend almost entirely on whose point of view you choose to employ.
So, where do you start?
How do you select a viewpoint character in the first place? The easiest way is to know all your characters inside out and care about them – even the ‘baddies’. Once you achieve this level of confidence and intimacy with the people in your story, selecting a viewpoint character will happen automatically. This will often be the person you identify with most yourself. And because you have chosen this character more or less spontaneously, you will care about him or her – and you will then have achieved your main objective of making your readers care about this character, too, thereby creating a satisfying, enduring story.
– Jenny Hewitt. Reproduced for educational purposes.