Today I’m going to share some thoughts and opinions about the different perspectives we, as writers, can use to develop our characters through their views, observations and backstories and my own experiences of using these tools in my own writing. So I’m going to be talking about characters looking in, looking around and looking back.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing in the first or third person about one or a number of characters. At some point it will be come relevant to the story to share a characters inner thoughts when they contradict, enforce or justify their words or actions.
Introspection – sharing a characters own hidden thoughts about another character, a sequence of events or an upcoming event in the narrative is a good way to build the readers familiarity with that character, sharing their motives and emotions to build reader/character rapport. The stumbling block (and one my editor pointed out to me during Black Knight) is that too much of it, or too lengthy a chunk of it, rather than help build that reader/character relationship, gives the impression if self-centered navel-gazing. So, unless there is an important reason for the character to be indulging in deep thought introspection can be achieved via the medium of a second character, a sounding board for the primary or a prompt for the thoughts they’re having. My advice when entering into a section like this is to keep it concise and, if possible, break it up with secondary character interaction.
Circumspective – there is a genre that used all three of these types of perspectives and it has become a defined trope of that genre. What am I talking about? I’m talking about Noir. Whether on the page or on the screen the main character (likely a grizzled Private Detective) will indulge in a persistent internal dialogue sharing thoughts and impressions of the people and places around them. Looking around at events and clues is the process for crime and noir stories and it’s a good place to go for reference if you want to develop your own style in these areas. The thing is, you don’t have to go out and pick up The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice or L.A. Confidential. Aspects of Noir have been adopted into other genres. Urban Fantasy for a start, The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher) is noir/detective fiction with wizards and monsters, Terry Pratchett’s Guards series withing the fantastic setting of the Discworld shares elements of Noir. You can build impressions of how knowledgeable, observant or practical your characters are and also share some of their opinions about a multitude of societal or political subjects through these observations but, once again, being sparing is key.
Retrospective – now, I don’t know about you but, sometimes I get frustrated by how clean and clear some characters thought patterns are. In my life a good percentage of my retrospective thoughts are random invasions of that really embarrassing thing I did that time in primary school or how I made an ass of myself that time/those times. But there is a reason for this too. As writers we want to keep our stories concise, we don’t want to pad out page-count with things that aren’t relevant so, as much as the hero might have a flash back to that time she fell on her face running track at school, I (the writer) am not going to include it unless it’s plot-relevant. However, the past intruding on the present is an important influence in anyone’s life and that’s no different for characters in a story. While, in a way, they come into being at the start of the book and end with the final page we don’t want the readers to really believe that. They should have had a life before and have goals for the future. In those sections where you use either introspection or circumspection there’s an opening for Retrospection, sharing why the character feels this way, what caused their bias or gut reaction. It doesn’t have to be more than a line or two and it doesn’t have to be explained fully. Having those tantalizing hooks for readers to theorize about is one of the joys of fandom and another is when, later on, those throw-aways are fully explored. One that immediately comes to mind is Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Carribean – Disney 2003) off-hand commenting “And then they made me their chief!” It was a tantalizing line from the characters past that wasn’t fully explained until PotC At Worlds End in 2007. Referencing a characters past makes them more ‘real’ to the reader in that they had a life outside these pages and, whether it is throwaway line or a full-blown flashback sequence this kind of character development (when narratively necessary) should definitely be taken advantage of.
So, whether your characters are looking in, looking out or looking back remember that the most important time for them is the now and, whilst these perspectives help inform the reader about why a character does whatever they do and helps them ‘get to know’ your cast you don’t want to get lost down the rabbit hole of unfolding the characters entire psyche. On the flip-side a character who never shares their thoughts with the audience loses dimension and becomes little more than a feature of scenery in their own story. Books allow us to be in the characters heads and feel what they feel, some may argue that’s an aspect that is lost on screen but remember, body-language, expression and tone of delivery convey more meaning than simply the words themselves. A person doesn’t even have to speak before we start building a picture of how we think they’re feeling. So, go digging in your characters thoughts and past experiences, build them up and, while you might not use everything you come up with, it will help inform their actions throughout the story.