Once you’ve chosen a primary point-of-view character, you need to get to know her from the inside out.
Keep in mind that readers want an experience, not just a view. They want to see the story through that character’s eyes. In order to create an authentic narrative voice, begin by asking yourself some key questions about your POV character: How does this person perceive the world? How does she come to understand her environment? What does she choose to notice and to ignore, and why? What does she want to do with what she learns?
In addition to defining your character’s emotional and intellectual dimensions, POV reflects perceptual ability, which varies depending on a person’s sensory and cognitive skills — the way we take in and use information.
Perception and Point of View
Most of us have one or two dominant senses. For example, I’m an auditory, not visual, person. I can see you every workday, and I can’t describe you. But after a couple of phone conversations, I can recognize a voice anywhere. So as a POV character, I would not note my future love interest’s looks, beyond a vague realization that he’s gorgeous. But his sardonic tone, the nervous catch in his voice as he greets me, the deliberate pace of his speech — these I would take note of.
Think about your own perceptual strengths and weaknesses. Which of the five basic senses is strongest for you? Can you actually taste the difference between Pepsi and Coke? Can you distinguish the perfumes of every woman in the room? Can you tell just by the tone of a friend’s voice how she’s feeling? Do you love to touch different fabrics? Are you overly sensitive to color, to the point that you’re unable to work in a yellow room?
Now apply the same sort of questions to a character, and you’ll start to individualize her POV. Identify her dominant sense, and then think about how that will affect how she narrates a scene. A visual person will focus more on what she sees: She was so intent on that garbage truck backing up that she missed what Judy said. A tactile person will always be touching things and reporting on the texture: Betty grabbed the doorknob.The brass was cool and smooth under her hand, and it wouldn’t turn. A little of this goes a long way, but even a few focused sensory references can convey how this character takes in the world around her.
Various Modes Of Perception
Sensual perceptivity is not the only way to “absorb” the world. There’s also temperament (optimist/pessimist, emotional/rational) and personality style (problem solver, logician, competitor and so on). Learning style also affects perception. You’ll notice that schools these days tend to offer different methods of instruction because they recognize that children have different learning strengths. For example, a teacher will provide an assignment sheet but also read it aloud in class, so that both visual and auditory learners will understand it.
Visual people learn more through their eyes; they have good visual memory, are intrigued by color and motion, and will watch a video to learn how to build a bookcase. Kinesthetic learners need to participate in the lesson.
Think about how your character learned (or didn’t learn) in school. And consider the character’s profession, for we usually choose to do what we are naturally attuned to. Artists tend to perceive the world through their most developed sense, which will probably be the one they use in their art. An engineer will try to understand the logic, the structure, of what he’s perceiving. A lawyer is a negotiator and a talker, and she’ll acquire knowledge mostly through questioning and listening.
There’s also a less obvious perceptive mode — a sixth sense — we call intuition. It’s probably a combination of superior emotional intelligence and hypersensitivity to external stimuli, but what it means is that you can sense the emotion, intent and fears of others. You can figure out if they’re telling the truth or lying if they’re trustworthy or not. This is a wonderful “extra” sense to bestow upon certain types of characters, like cops and journalists, who have to make quick judgments. To display this sense in POV, imagine how it feels to know something instinctively and show it that way. For example, a character’s stomach might knot up, or the nerves in his arms might go on alert, when someone intends harm.
Perception as a Party Game
Now consider how these ways of perceiving will be exhibited in the narrative. Imagine a group of characters with lots of different perceptual abilities arriving at a raucous party and having to make sense of the chaos.
A problem solver sees the world as a set of problems to be solved. She will walk into a party and notice what’s wrong — the music is too loud, the ice has run out and a girl is sitting alone in the corner crying. But though the problem solver focuses on problems, she’s no pessimist; rather, she’s busy devising solutions — turning down the stereo, sending her boyfriend into the kitchen for more ice, and comforting the weeper.
A competitor sees life as a game. When he enters the party, he will choose a side — that weeping girl has already been cut from his team — then scout the opposition and ascertain the prize. He likes to know the rules ahead of time, and he expects a fair outcome: The swift ought to win the race, and he ought to get the most beautiful woman.
A materialist will scan the crowd and see diamonds and Rolex watches, calculating the net worth of the party and never noticing the human tragedy in the corner.
These are examples of only a few perception types. You’ll come up with more on your own. Just remember, less is more. Few people are both visually and auditorily superior, and logical besides. So, instead of using all five senses in a scene, consider that the more evocative viewpoint will have one dominant perception. A musical hero would close his eyes to better hear the song of his lover’s sighs—and never even see the fire in her eyes.
How Perception Can Change a Scene
Use your knowledge of the POV character’s perspective modes to make his narration of every event unique to him. This contributes to the authenticity of the scene, strengthens a reader’s investment in the story and reveals character. Here are some examples of how perception might affect a POV character’s experience of the scene and what details you choose to reveal about him.
A deliberate, judicious character will think before speaking, so you’ll likely show that thinking: Thomas waited until they were alone. He chose his words carefully, knowing the wrong word could mean beheading. “I would not want to offend Your Grace, but his wife—it is said in the kitchens, mere rumor, perhaps, that she is spending more time with the stable boy than perhaps most ladies of her station would do.” He waited for the duke’s response, and when there was none except for that cold stare, Thomas realized it was not time for further revelation.
An impulsive person’s thoughts will be chaotic and action-oriented, and often the action will come first and the thought after:
Thomas took the duke’s arm and pulled him toward the window. “Come and see this. You’ll want to see it.” Well, he reflected, His Grace might not actually want to see it, but a cuckolded man deserved to know the truth.
He didn’t see it coming, but he felt it — the duke’s glove. Fist enclosed. As he went down, he thought, Kill the messenger, why don’t you? And then he didn’t think anymore.
A pessimistic person’s thoughts will prophesize doom:
Thomas watched the hard-faced duke enter and cross to the back window. Oh, woe. The duke would see his wife and the stable boy, right out there in the stable yard. There was no avoiding it. He didn’t even bother to try to divert the duke’s attention—what good would it do? No matter what, he would get blamed for it. It was his job around here. Whipping boy.
An optimist’s POV will show an expectation of the best:
Thomas watched the duke enter and cross to the window. That could be trouble. Then again, maybe it was for the best. Maybe the duke would see how unhappy his wife was, take pains to win her back, and give her the child she wanted so badly. Then the old castle would ring with the joyous sound of laughter and childish voices!
Same situation, same role — but a different type of character in each POV. It’s not just the action that shifts with the change in character, but the very narration of that action — the word choice, the attitude, the sentence construction, the perception, the value system (the first Thomas values his position; the next values the truth; the next values his martyrdom; the final values babies and marital harmony), the analysis of what’s going on, and the level of connection to reality.