Building Convincing Characters and First Person POV

JA Huss FictionI love meeting new characters; in fact I can love or hate a book solely based on the characters alone.  The plot can be lacking, the setting thin, but if the characters are well-developed I’m typically a happy reader.

This is because plot doesn’t get a reader emotionally involved in the story.  Sure, a twisty thrilling plot can get you excited or make you anxious or scared, but the only reason you feel those emotions is because you care about the character involved in that particular situation.

When I start writing a new book I spend quite a bit of time deciding the little details that make characters deep and multidimensional. To help me along I use a method called GMC – Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.  This is actually the name of a book by Donna Dixon, and it’s quite handy when trying to initially flesh out your major characters.

But before you get to that, the very first thing you want to do is look at point of view (POV) because this will tell you exactly what you can and cannot say in your story.  I wrote Junco in the first person present tense, which means, if you’re not familiar, that the reader is experiencing the story right along with Junco and everything is happening in real time.

While I still see many people saying that first person is not their choice as far as reading POV goes, sometimes it’s the only way to tell a story.  In addition, the young adult world is filled with first person POV.  It’s very popular.  But you should never choose a POV based on what’s popular, you have to know what your story requires.

In the case of Junco, she’s experiencing something that is preventing her from understanding the truth.  This can only be told in the present tense as it’s happening – otherwise the reader would never believe how it all unfolds.

First person means you’re inside the character’s head.  I never used to like this POV to be honest.  Not until I read Altered Carbon and realized the reason I never liked it was because it was poorly done.  Richard K. Morgan bitch-slapped the hell out of his first person narrative of Takeshi Kovacs.  That book basically showed me how it was supposed to be done and from that day on, seriously, from the prologue of that book forward, I was a new fan of first person POV.

This is what every writer hopes for in their characters – that readers will connect with them so intimately that they become them.  For a short period of time I was Kovacs and to be honest, by the time I got to book three (Woken Furies) and we were back on his home planet, I felt like a Harlen’s World native.  That’s how well Morgan wrote his first person character.

I think first person is the deepest level of characterization there is and even if you don’t end up writing your book in that POV, you should practice getting into their heads a little with some first person POV exercises.  Write a few short scenes, make them do stuff – but make sure you become them when you do it.  Act it out in your head, see the scene like it was a movie…and only then start writing.

This is how I write all my scenes – I see them frame by frame as I write.  Some people call this daydreaming. Aren’t we lucky then?  Who ever thought you could have a job that requires you to daydream!

Building deep characters takes more than just the POV – it also requires that you understand your character’s motivation for doing things.  Junco has a very deep and dark past and her early years drive most of her actions.  But as I move through the books I have to change that because she’s not the same girl in book four as she was in book one.  Book one had one motivation, but four – totally different set of circumstances.

So when writing a scene always ask yourself – would my character do this?  If so, ask what would motivate her to do this?  What past experiences would make her take one action over another?  This is what people mean when they say characters were well-developed.  That the writer not only understood the reasons for the actions, but also that they could relay that information to the reader in a way that makes the story compelling.

The last thing I want to mention is the goal.  Characters always have goals.  You always have goals, even if they are little ones.  Maybe your goal is to eat breakfast or maybe your goal is to get through the first day at a new job.  These goals are very different.  Your character will act differently as they move to accomplish these goals.  Always keep your character’s goals in mind.

In Altered Carbon, Kovacs’ motivation is to save his “partner” who is locked away in a prison in another solar system. But his goal is to get to the end of his task alive and, if possible, coming out a little ahead.

If you read a review of the story you might think his goal is unravel the crime he was hired to solve.  And that is one goal of the story.  But that’s not his ultimate goal, that’s not what’s driving him through the plot.  His goal is self-preservation.

Big difference between solving a crime and self-preservation.  That changes a lot about how you might interpret his actions.

Characters drive the story and they are what make the reader want to continue on with the story, so getting to know them intimately, putting them in difficult situations, and making sure they have reasons for their actions will go a long way towards the development of characters who can stand the test of time and live on to inspire readers for years to come.

Julie Huss

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