In this week’s 60 Second Writing Tip, I discuss showing your POV character to your reader and how to smoothly switch between the character’s POV lens and the narrative lens.
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One of my clients recently wrote to say she’s having trouble describing the POV character. “I think I’m stuck on the idea that the camera’s on that character’s shoulder. How can I know when I can switch from the point of view character to the narrator? And how do I make that switch smoothly?”
It’s a very fluid thing that comes from establishing a well-developed narrative voice. We’re so connected to the narrative voice that we hardly notice these shifts as readers.
With a POV character it often feels tricky, because you don’t want to stand her in front of a mirror and use that old hackneyed trick.
You will frequently show us the character through the narrative lens. We need to see what this character does, as well as hear her speak, access her thoughts and feelings, and sometimes see through her eyes. To do that, to see her acting on the stage of the world you’ve created on the page, the narrative camera lens needs to be pulled back far enough to include her in the shot, something it can’t do if it’s perched on her shoulder for the entire book.
Always remember your POV character is in a body.
She’s going to run her fingers through her hair at some point—short or long?
She could pluck a hair from her sweatshirt—dark or fair? Straight or curly?
She might hate her nose or some other body part, and since we obsess about what we don’t appreciate, she’d notice it and think about it.
If she bites her nails, she’s not into manicures.
If she breaks a nail, does she react to the pain or run for a nail file?
You can weave a lot of her physical appearance into her physical presence as she moves through the world.
You can also use other characters.
A lover says, “I’ve always had a thing for green-eyed girls.” And we know she has green eyes.
Or she remembers her mother braiding her straight blonde hair before it darkened. And we know she now has straight dark blonde hair.
Height: does she need a step stool to reach the top shelf in her cupboard? Or she asks a friend to grab that thing for her? Or alternatively, the friend asks her. She barely has to raise on her toes to get at the top shelf.
Think about your character’s activities.
When I was young, I took ballet lessons and people often told me I walked gracefully.
Someone who plays soccer or cycles might have some serious quads.
And there are those moments when it works well to use a mirror, like trying on a new dress, disguising herself to go undetected, getting ready for a date.
The essential thing is to embody your character.
Think of how you move through space and handle things in your environment.
How many times a day do you notice your hands? Do you need to trim the nails? Is the skin getting dry? Do you have ink staining a finger?
Is your neck tight? Maybe you lift your hair off your shoulders to rub it. Maybe you take off your glasses and apply mascara. All of these movements shape an image of both physical appearance and character.
Let’s look at an example.
This is an excerpt from a short story of mine titled “First Light.”
Suzie shoves a new pair of panties and her toothbrush into her purse, a dark green shoulder bag dotted with metal studs. Already she doesn’t like the way things get lost in the giant main compartment, but her cousin, Rey, convinced her it was the one. She almost forgets to clip the tags before running out the door.
The shoulder bag isn’t the only thing Rey talked Suzie into at the mall. A new haircut and a mini skirt are also her doing. Rey pushed Suzie into the chair like a mother with a fearful toddler. “Give her something less juvenile,” she told the stylist. Suzie’s hair now has layers that frame her face and add bounce. Suzie resisted the mini. I’m too fat for that. She almost said it out loud. Her fear that Rey would agree was all that kept her protests quiet. When it was on and she stood in the center of the three-way mirror, turning to check her figure from every perspective, Suzie realized her ass was not so large as she had thought. Her curves were even pleasing. She was about to declare that the store must use trick mirrors when Rey said, “Damn, Cuz, you look hot. All right? Just buy it so we can go already.”
Suzie leans forward to peer up through the windshield. The sky is a featureless gray-black and Suzie imagines a tarp being drawn between the earth and the stars. The car speeds along, dipping and rising with the swells of land.
This excerpt is all narrative exposition in a close, third person, present tense point of view. The narrator uses memory and perspective to show us both how Suzie looks and how she feels about her looks. We get a sense of a transformation occurring with the help of her cousin, making Suzie look older, trendier, and sexier.
The narrator leaves her memories and returns to the present moment, and in this case the present tense, by showing Suzie looking up through the windshield. A transition from narrative to action should be that simple and straightforward. As long as it isn’t jarring to the reader, it should work.
Now let’s distill this down into your 60 Second Writing Tip:
- Establish a well-developed narrative voice
- Use the narrative lens to show the characters, including the POV character, acting in the world you’ve created.
- Describe your character as an embodied being who interacts physically with both her own body and the world in which she lives.
- Pay attention to how you see yourself, especially when you aren’t in front of a mirror. What do you notice about your body and appearance? What value judgments do you hold about yourself? Observe other people, too, and use those observations in your fiction.
- Use all the tools of narrative to show your character to your reader, including the POV character’s perspective. Remember Suzie thinking her butt’s too big until she sees it in a mini skirt? That shows us her attitude toward her body at a moment when her perspective shifts. That shift is confirmed by her cousin telling her she looks hot.
- Transition from narrative exposition to action smoothly. Just do it. If it’s not awkward or jarring, it should be working for you.
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