You’ve worked on the characterization of your main character in great deatil and yet you struggle to bring their internal voice to life? Writing a first or third person narrator – and writing them well – takes one of my least favorite resources in the world: practice. Lots and lots of practice.
I’m not gonna lie: I don’t have any shortcuts or cheat sheets to offer you (though if you come across any that actually work, please let me know!).
What I do have are three tips on what to watch out for to really make the most of your protagonist’s point of view. I hope they will to help you turn your narrators into characters that feel as real and alive to your readers as you and I both are.
Before we start, please keep in mind that these tips were written with writers in mind who:
- work with one or multiple first person or third person narrators.
- already have a (more or less) clear characterization for their protagonist(s) in mind.
Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t use these tips if one or both of those criteria don’t apply to you. It simply means that you may have to adapt them to best fit your narrator style or have to work on your characterization before you can really apply them in your own writing.
Ready? Then let’s get right to it.
1. Highlight your protagonist’s character traits through their point of view.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”Henry David Thoreau
Writing a fictional person’s point of view means letting the reader experience the world through their eyes. The protagonist’s, not the auth0r’s. That’s why I’m convinced that your narrator’s characterization stands and falls with their POV.
It doesn’t matter how often the narrative, other characters and even the protagonist themselves tell us that they are an honest, selfless or ambitious person – if we don’t see those characteristics reflected in and supported by their innermost thoughts, then how fundamental can those traits be to them?
More importantly, if there’s no personality behind your protagonist’s POV then how are your readers going to connect with them emotionally? How are they going to get invested?
To create interesting, realistic characters, your narrator’s personality should affect their POV.
Just like when two of your friends tell you the exact same story: They probably won’t use the same words or get hung up on the exact same things. They’ll highlight or leave out different parts, depending on what they personally consider important or irrelevant.
Because while they’ve both shared the same experience, they’re not the same person. And who they are affects how they perceive the incident and what they take away from it.
That also means that your chosen point of view gives you a great opportunity to employ the show, don’t tell principle: Your readers are privy to your protagonist’s inner thoughts. They get to know them over time, so you don’t need to spell everything out for them.
For example: Emre is a confident man, who takes pride in his looks? Let his inner monologue reflect that when he pauses on his way out of the bathroom to rearrange his hairstyle. Mirai is a very honest person who hates lying? Let her dialogue match her inner monologue of what she’s feeling or else showcase her guilt inwardly when she does have to lie for some reason.
And it goes beyond character traits. Your narrator’s POV can – and should – also align with their goals, their priorities, their values and their relationships with other character.
To check whether your protagonist’s point of view reflects their personality, you can ask yourself the following questions:
- How do their character traits (that you want to highlight) affect their POV? Does their POV currently convey those traits?
- How do their main goal or driving motivation affect their POV? Does their POV currently convey them?
- How does what’s most important to them become evident in their POV? Does their POV currently convey that?
- How does what’s not important to them become evident in their POV? Does their POV currently convey that?
- Does their POV currently convey who the important people in their life are and your the protagonist views their relationship with each of them?
As you write (or edit, whatever works best for your process), keep asking yourself the most important question of all: How would your protagonist view this scene?
Because remember, this isn’t about you. It’s not even about what’s objectively happening in your story. It’s about how your protagonist perceives what’s going on. But more about this in a second.
2. Take advantage of your protagonist’s point of view – and its limits.
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
Telling a story through the eyes of your protagonist, whether in first person or third person, means writing in limited perspective. You give the reader a glimpse into the main character’s innermost thoughts and motivations. It also means that what your readers learn is limited by what your narrator knows, believes and learns over time.
So when I say you should take advantag of your protagonist’s POV, what I mean is this: Depending on their backstory and interests, they will care about and thus pay attention to very different things.
This matters because:
- Here’s another chance to highlight tidbits of personal information about your protagonist to flesh them out some more.
- This affects how your protagonist moves forward through the plot in a believable way and how you deliver important facts the reader needs to know at the same time.
Consider Elle from the movie Legally Blonde (if you haven’t watched it yet, you should). The movie is based on the supposed dichotomy of a blonde “Barbie” with a passion for fashion and beauty deciding to study law at Harvard.
Thorough the movie, Elle plays a key role in revealing who the true killer in an ongoing court case is – by using her knowledge about beauty treatments.
That last part is key.
Because Elle doesn’t just prove herself as a law student. The writers could’ve chosen to have her notice some other inconsistency or a legal loophole to get her client out of jail. But it wouldn’t have had the same impact. The fact that it’s her knowledge about hair perms of all things gives Elle – as well as us, the audience – the satisfying confirmation that her seemingly conflicting interests are actually an asset.
And we, the audience, never once doubt that this is knowledge that Elle, as we’re getting to know her thorough the movie, would in fact know.
Legally Blonde proves the value of its main character’s unique perspective on things – that’s often used as a source of humor in previous scenes – and I think that’s what we should aim for in any POV we write.
There’s a reason you picked this particular character to tell the story. So don’t be coy. Show the reader why this is the perspective that matters.
Now, let’s talk abou the limits of your protagonist’s POV.
I’m convinced that to write a realistic POV of any non-all-knowing character, it’s just as if not more important to respect the limits of their perspective than to take adavantage of the opportunities it offers.
What I mean by that?
Your protagonist’s POV allows your readers to know what’s going on in your character’s head. BUT. Only your character’s head. Anything your narrator doesn’t know or personally experiences is based on their interpretation of the people and the world around them – not necessarily the factual truth.
That may sound obvious, but it’s actually really hard to do consistently. Especially when you write their interactions with other characters that you’ve worked hard to characterize. Because you, the author, know everything. (We-ell, more or less. Shoutout to all my fellow plot-as-I-write-writers out there.) You know where things are going. You know what the other characters think, whether they’re lying and what they’re planning.
In other words, you know more than your characters and that can make staying true to the limits of their POV hard.
So when in doubt, ask yourself: Can the narrator know this?
If the answer isn’t a clear yes, you may want to either re-write the scene or turn the knowledge into an unconfirmed suspicion (the latter only when it’s a reasonable one for your protagonist to have at this point in the story).
One particular trap to watch out for are scenes in which two or more characters interact with each other and are too in tune with each other. Do they know each other very well or are they reading each other’s mind? Unless you’re writing about two telepaths, the latter is a sign that you may either want to rework their dialogue (body language very much included) so that it becomes more expressive. Alternatively, you could also introduce some uncertainty into that conversation on the narrator’s sight. This way you highlight that your protagonist doesn’t actually know what that’s going on in the other character’s head – they assume.
Despite the occasional pitfall I personally love playing with the limits of my characters’ POV.
Why? Because humans are notoriously unreliable observers and narrators. Just think about the ongoing joke in every crime show ever how when you’ve got five witnesses, you get five totally different descriptions of the culprit.
So just keep in mind: Your narrator is not some neutral third-party.
They are a fictional human being with their own blindspots, biases and preconcieved notions. Writing someone’s POV gives you the chance to showcase all of them and to play around with how those same blindspots affect your protagonist’s interpretation of an event. It may even allow your readers to observe how your protagonist overcomes some of those biases thorough the story. Or is proven wrong.
To check whether you’re taking advantage of your protagonist’s point of view and its limits, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- What do they know / What information do they reasonably possess or have access to?
- What would they notice? What would get them to they pay attention?
- What would they miss, consider irrelevant or boring?
- What biases or blindspots do they have and how do those affect their perspective?
- What assumptions would they likely make?
- What is the most (or at least a) reasonable conclusion they could draw based on the knowledge they have?
3. Your protagonist’s point of view should reflect their character development.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”Wayne Dyer
Last but not least, I have some bad news for you. Because after all that hard work you’ve put into getting a clear idea on how to convey everything you want to get across realistically through your chosen narrator’s point of view, there’s one more thing you should keep in mind: People change.
And so does their POV.
As your protagonist learns and experiences new things through the course of the story, their inner voice should reflect those changes. That’s what’s gonna convince your readers that there’s real character development happening here. Because it’s not just one big, plot-relevant gesture: Below the surface things are moving too.
To clarify: I’m not saying your protagonist’s inner voice should change with every single scene.
Unless something deeply impactful or even traumatic happens, people don’t tend to adapt a fundamentally different personality over night. Nor do they just throw their core beliefs out of the window because they feel like it. But important scenes and life lessons your narrator lives through should have a real, lasting impact on them.
And yet for all that characters grow and develop as the story goes on, consistency matters as well.
It’s very rare that a person’s personality does a complete 180. I personally think large changes in a protagonist’s personality and behaviour should be built up towards or explained by the plot events, so that your readers can follow the process and understand where those shifts come from.
And even then, it’s always nice when you still recognize the character by the end. It’s very satisfying in a way to look back at the way they started out and realize that the potential to turn into whoever they have become by the end has always been there.
I don’t know about you but those are the stories that tend to have the most profound impact on me. They make me feel like I’ve really gotten to know these characters and got to be a part of their journey.
What do I read a story for if not for that? (That and the plot. A good plot is nice too.)
To check whether your protagonist’s point of view reflects their character development, these are some questions you can ask yourself:
- How do the major events affect my protagonists character traits and thus their POV?
- What major lessons has my protagonist learned and how do they affect their POV?
- How does my protagonist’s mindset shift over time and how does their POV convey that?
- What parts of my protagonist’s initial personality are stable thorough the entire story and does their POV reflect that?
- What parts of my protagonist’s initial personality change the most and does their POV reflect that?
I hope these three tips – or even just one of them – were helpful and inspiring to you. If you have any questions or, even better, another tip that’s helped you improve your POV writing, please let me know in a comment!
And if you have a few moments to chat: What point of view do you prefer the most (either to read or to write or both)? I’m curious.