Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Welcome to my final post on writing awesome characters. If you’ve missed any of my earlier posts, I’ve talked about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters; developing your characters so they become real people to your readers; and finally killing your characters. I want to finish up with characters by discussing point of view. Point of view could be its own series of posts in and of itself (and maybe I’ll get to that later), but here I’d like to talk about it as it relates to your characters.

 

To give a very basic overview, point of view is literally the viewpoint from which you are telling the story. The most common points of view are first person and third person limited. In first person point of view, the story is told directly from the point of view of one of the characters, usually the protagonist. To describe it another way, the point of view character is telling the story as it unfolds around them. First person point of view uses the pronoun “I”: Today I went to the store and bought kumquats. Third person limited, however, is not told directly from the point of view of the character, but instead the story is told about the character, narrating their actions, thoughts, and feelings from the third person. It uses the character’s name or the pronouns “he” or “she”: Today Jameyanne went to the store and bought kumquats. You can also have third person omniscient (where the reader sees the thoughts and feelings of all the characters) and third person objective (the story is told objectively with no thoughts or feelings for anyone). Even rarer types of point of view are second person (Today you went to the store and bought kumquats) and first person plural (Today we went to the store and bought kumquats. All the kumquats.) Complicating matters even more is the idea of the narrator of the story (especially in third person scenarios) having thoughts and feelings of their own unrelated to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You can also have multiple points of view in a story, and there are myriad ways to do that. In my small child magician novel, for example, I have three points of view: my young magician (in first person), her mother (third person), and her father (third person).

 

But I don’t want to get into the specific nitty gritty details of all these types of points of view. I’m talking about your characters and their stories, because once you have your plot and your characters, you need to decide how you’re going to tell the story. A key part of that is deciding your point of view. Who’s telling this story? And whose story is it anyway?

 

In almost all cases, your protagonist is the answer to both questions. There are other options, certainly, but there’s a good reason why this is the most common approach. If it’s your protagonist’s story, then your protagonist is the character you want the reader to connect with most, and the easiest way to get a reader to fall in love with a character is to give a direct window into the inner workings of that character’s mind.

 

But let’s not just leave it there. What if it’s not just the protagonist’s story? What if it’s many people’s stories? Or what if, as you developed all your important characters, you’ve planned out lots of character arcs, and you want to show them?

 

One option is multiple points of view, but there are dangers to that. I’d say, when there get to be more than four or five point of view characters, the story can feel confused. I felt this way, for example, when I recently read Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel for the first time. While I was pretty sure who the protagonist was, I couldn’t be sure it was actually her story because there were so many points of view. This isn’t to say that lots of points of view can’t be done. By the end of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, there are at least nine point of view characters running around, and that worked for me, but at the same time, she built up to that, adding a couple point of view characters each book. And while this works for me, it might not work for everyone.

 

Something else to be conscious of if you plan to work with multiple points of view is what the protagonist knows versus what the reader knows. Not only can it get confusing, but when other characters know important information—and the reader knows they know—but the protagonist doesn’t know, it can lead to the reader being frustrated either because the protagonist appears stupid or because the characters aren’t communicating with each other. I find this particularly true when one of the point of view characters is the villain. I get really, really annoyed when the villain goes and reveals his plans, and then I know them, but the protagonist is still angsting about not knowing what the villain is up to. A huge part of this for me comes back to the question of whose story it is. If it’s the protagonist’s story, I want to follow the protagonist along her journey, to make discoveries when she does and to feel what she is feeling, not before. Call it simplistic, but that’s the most enjoyable reading experience for me.

 

Finally, it’s crucial to consider the length of the story you’re telling. With multiple points of view, you’re implying that each POV character has a story of their own to tell, their own path through the plot. However, if you’re writing a 5000 word short story, chances are good that the scope of that story is too narrow to focus on more than one character. If you’re writing a novella or novel, on the other hand, you have more room to explore other characters’ journeys through their perspectives if you so choose.

 

I’m not saying don’t use multiple points of view—I do it myself. But there are things to be careful of when you decide to do it. If you decide not to use multiple points of view, you can still have character arcs for multiple characters. As long as your protagonist doesn’t completely live in a bubble, they’ll notice the people around them changing (they don’t even have to say anything explicitly), and your readers will notice it too. Basically, this boils down to showing the other characters’ journeys externally, as they are observed by your point of view character.

 

Point of view and character overlap in complicated ways. There are so many types of point of view to choose from, with their own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls to watch out for. but when I’m deciding what to use, it comes down to the two questions: Whose story is it? And who’s telling the story? And of course, why? (Sorry, that was more than two questions.) These questions are not just about the technical aspects of point of view. They are about digging into your characters and the heart of your story.

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The Other Guys

In the past couple weeks, I’ve talked about what makes a strong protagonist and antagonist. This week, I’m going to talk about the side characters (as far as I know, there is no “agonist” term for these guys). These aren’t the good guys or the bad guys of your stories—though they will certainly have their own alliances. Personally, I find creating strong side characters can be more complicated than creating a strong protagonist or antagonist, but it’s also sometimes more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love my good guys and bad guys. It’s their story I’m telling after all. But the other guys can be lots of fun.

 

In some ways, you don’t have to know quite as much about your side characters as you do about your main characters. Of course, this depends on how important each character is, both to the plot and to your main characters. You don’t need to know as much about these characters because they aren’t going to be claiming center stage, but you need to remember that they are often important people in your main characters’ lives—friends or family or coworkers—and this means you probably want them to feel important to the reader as well. And even though they aren’t the protagonist or the antagonist, they’re still going to have goals of their own, and those goals are going to contribute to or complicate the forward momentum of your plot (this is one way you get subplots). I feel that side characters, like antagonists, should think of themselves as the protagonists of their own stories.

 

But the big difference between your main characters and your side characters is in how you have to develop your side characters, their contribution to the main plot, and their own subplots. In most cases, you aren’t going to be telling the story from your side characters’ point of view. You’ll be telling the story from your protagonist’s, or sometimes maybe your antagonist’s, point of view. It’s very rare that you’ll be telling significant portions of your story from a side character’s perspective, though it can be done. (Never fear, I’m going to talk more about point of view in a few weeks.) So, most of the time, while you’re working with your main characters from inside their heads, you’re working with your side characters from the outside. So your readers perceptions of your side characters will be colored by your main characters’ opinions of them. This can lead to interesting complications—if your main character misinterprets your side characters’ actions, for instance.

 

Complicating matters further is that not all side characters require the same amount of development or attention. The cashier at the grocery store on the corner, for example, probably doesn’t matter as much to the main character as their best friend or their sister or their love interest, and consequently the cashier probably won’t be influencing the plot as much. So you won’t need to devote as much time to him as you would to someone else. Your characters best friend or sister or love interest, on the other hand, will probably have strong influences over the main character and their decisions, as well as their own decisions and goals that could influence the story in their own right.

 

While I find working with side characters a bit more difficult than working with the protagonist or antagonist, I also sometimes find them to be more interesting and even more fun. There’s so much you can do—so many factors you can play with. Think of it this way, if you are the protagonist in your story, you do not stand alone. We do not exist in a void with our nemesis. We all make choices, at least in part, because of other people. We are social creatures by nature. Even introverts have family and friends they rely on. And if you want your characters to ring true to your readers, they have to be the same.

The Bad Guys

Last week, I talked about the protagonist, the good guy, and what role they play in the story. This week, I’m going to talk about their adversary, the antagonist: the bad guy. Maybe it’s just me, but a good villain can make or break a novel for me. There is something deeply fascinating about a good villain, about seeing someone cross that line between right and wrong. In all honesty, the villain in my small child magician story is my favorite character in that project. And since I realized this, I’ve been thinking about why. What qualities does this villain have that intrigues me so much? What qualities make a villain in general a powerful opponent for your protagonist?

 

As I was pondering this, the first thing I realized is that the antagonist of a story doesn’t think they’re the antagonist. They view themselves as the protagonist of their story, and as a writer, this is how you should treat them. The antagonist has a goal and motivations behind that goal (usually apart from stopping the protagonist from succeeding, though that usually dovetails nicely with the overall plan), and in their mind, achieving that goal will accomplish something good, whether that’s just for themself or if it’s for the good of a country or world. In the broader framework of the story, the reader and the protagonist agree that the antagonist either has the wrong goal, or they’re going about it the wrong way, but the antagonist needs to believe that they’ve got the right of it, otherwise they can come off as corny.

 

So, just as a protagonist has a goal and motivation, an antagonist must also have a goal and motivation. And just as a protagonist must protag—take action to achieve their goal—the antagonist must antag—take action to achieve their own goal. And these goals, naturally, should come into conflict. Otherwise they wouldn’t be a protagonist and antagonist.

 

Another thing to consider for an antagonist is how powerful they are. They should be sufficiently powerful to pose a threat to the protagonist’s success. As your protagonist is trying and failing to achieve their goal (see my post on plot structures for examples), the antagonist is also trying, and they’re doing pretty well. This gives the protagonist room to grow. It also gives the villain a greater distance to fall, which in my own personal opinion is more fun.

 

There are other qualities that make a villain more villainous. For one thing, the mystery behind an antagonist can add a lot of suspense to the story—for example, I personally found Lord Voldemort a whole lot more frightening before he came back at the end of Goblet of Fire. For another, the lengths to which your antagonist will can also add to their character. But for me, the most important thing is that the antagonoist believes they are the good guy. For me, an antagonist who honestly believes they’re doing the right thing is always a stronger, more frightening, and more realistic villain.

 

The Good Guys

As I’m working on my query and synopsis for my small child magician novel, I have found myself feeling very reflective. The query and the synopsis feel like a summation of all I have done for this novel, and since this novel was the novel I just couldn’t give up on, the novel that has grown and changed as I have grown and changed—as a person and as a writer—it feels pretty significant. I wrote the first draft of this novel almost twelve years ago, when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have taken enormous strides in my writing. For one thing, I learned about plot—what it is, how to do it, how to do it well. But at the same time, I also learned a lot about characters, and how characters are the key to moving a good story forward, just as much—if not more—than the plot. Also, I talked all throughout last November about plot, so I’ve decided it’s time I ramble about characters.

 

When I was in high school, I thought that the trick to strong characters was knowing every single possible detail about them that I could. I created a questionaire of 199 questions to make my characters real (in no particular order), and I answered every single question for every single character. Now, I laugh at my younger self a little bit. It’s not that this stuff isn’t important. It is. It helps you grasp what kind of person your character is. But you do not have to be as anal about it as I was. Beyond useless trivia, it probably isn’t essential that you know what your main character’s best friend’s older brother’s favorite color is. Unless it’s a significant part of the story—like he will only wear bright orange shirts, so the main character can always see him coming from a mile away—then really, no one is going to care that you know that particular fact. What I came to understand in college is that it’s much more important to know the big things than the small things. What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? What is their plan to get it? What do they care most about in the world? What are they most afraid of? What are they insecure about? It is these big questions and big ideas that shape who a person is—not their favorite pizza topping or least favorite hairstyle.

 

But there’s something even bigger that I’ve learned about characters as I’ve worked on my small child magician novel. A strong character is not only a well-rounded character. A strong character is an active character.

 

I’m going to talk specifically about protagonists right now. (In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss antagonists and side characters and how they influence the story in their own right, so stay tuned.) The protagonist is the main character of the story. They’re the character who—we hope—the reader is rooting for in the story (unless you’re writing an antihero (which I have never successfully done and don’t particularly like to read about, except when I do and then find myself totally baffled). In short, the protagonist is the good guy.

 

I think I’ve said before that the stories I most like to read and consequently aim to write are driven pretty equally by both plot and character. That means that while the story is pushed forward by outside influences—the plot—it is also moved along by the actions of the characters. A strong protagonist has agency—they are an active agent in their own plot.

 

It seems obvious, but it took me absolutely forever to get a grip on this. For the longest time, my protagonist was just flipflopping all over the story, being pushed around by the other forces in her life rather than standing up and making her own decisions. I learned that protagonists need to have agency, but it just didn’t sink in. Countless critiquers told me this was a problem, but either they didn’t say so in exact terms, or again I just didn’t get it. Then, at the end of my first year of college, it finally clicked into place. That it took this long for me to get it means that this lesson is really important for me. I think it is hands down the number one most important writing lesson I have ever learned.

 

For a story to work, your protagonist has to want something. That can be as simple as wanting to stop the antagonist, but your protagonist can have their own agenda entirely separate from the antagonist, until the antagonist gets in the way, of course. But the point is, your protagonist has to want something. Once your protagonist wants something, they have to take action to get it. This action drives the plot forward, and it also spurs character development. Because of course, it can’t be easy for your protagonist to get what they want. There has to be something standing in their way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read. It is when a protagonist takes action to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds, to tackle impossible challenges, and to come out the other side changed, even if they are not victorious (though victory is always an added bonus), that we find stories we love.

 

You can have an incredible, twisting, turning, thrilling plot, but it isn’t going to work if your protagonist is just being dragged around by that plot. Your protagonist needs to stand up and say, “No, this is my story, and I’m going to play a part in it.”