Inhabiting Your Character by Deborah Prum

woman wearing Virtual Reality glasses
Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash

Have you ever used virtual reality goggles to watch a movie? Imagine that the film starts off in an African village. Ahead of you, you see a hut and can almost smell the smoke rising from a campfire. You hear laughter. On the left, two small boys run past. Behind you, mist rises from the river. On the right, men start arguing loudly. Within a few seconds, you are dropped into the middle of the story, exactly where the screenwriter wants you to be.

Watching a movie this way reminds me of how I feel when I read a novel whose author has mastered creating a strong point of view. POV is the eyes, ears, heart and mind through which we experience a story. POV determines the vantage point from which a story is told; that is, the vantage point of a specific narrator with a specific world view and set of emotions. POV influences and directs the reader’s understanding of the narrative. Your choices with regard to POV can allow or withhold the reader access into the greater reaches of the story. POV is how you get a reader to experience the fictional “reality” of the prose, how you bring your reader into the world of your story. An effective use of POV will transport the reader to the vibrant core of your tale and keep her there.

As a writer, you must choose a narrator to tell your story. That storyteller you choose has a point of view. Your reader understands the story via your narrator’s consciousness and from that person’s specific emotional focus. Your choices regarding POV influences how your reader relates to your characters and what happens to them.

How do you choose a POV for your story? Sometimes, POV chooses you. The story drops into your head in a specific, strong POV. If that’s so, be grateful.

When the choice isn’t so clear, ask yourself these questions. Who is in the deepest trouble? Which character is present in most of the key scenes? Whose perspective is most important to you? Which character changes the most dramatically in your story?

Some novelists tell their stories via several characters and via several separate points of view. That can work beautifully, especially if whole sections are dedicated to each point of view. You can reveal several perspectives thereby creating a more complex and interesting tale. However, switching POV multiple times within a chapter, within a paragraph or within one sentence can confuse and lose your reader.

Unless you’ve written your character to be a mind reader or god, remember to limit the knowledge of the character whose POV you choose. They cannot know another person’s thoughts, intentions and feelings. They only can describe what they see or what state what they believe. They do not have firsthand knowledge of events they didn’t witness. Unless they are standing in front of a mirror they cannot give physical descriptions of their own reactions to something. For example, your character can’t know “my cheeks reddened” unless he saw his reflection. However, that character could feel, “blood rushed to my cheeks.”

When you focus on writing from your character’s point of view, your reader can feel empathy for your character. Your reader will become more invested in what happens to your character and more deeply engaged with your story. And those readers will do what we all hope for: they will read on.

Deborah Prum
Deborah Prum, author of many short stories, has won ten awards for her fiction, which has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin, Streetlight and other outlets. Her essays air on NPR and have appeared in The Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal and Southern Living, as well as many other places.

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