That’s not my point of view! Keeping characters in character

In “The Alchemist of Paris”, my current work in progress, our intrepid young heroine is summoned to work as a maid for a mysterious master in Paris in 1820. As she arrives at the darkened house, she is filled with amazement as she gazes upon the baroque facade, the carved lintel over the door and the ornate cornices in the rooms…

STOP!

I know a lot about architecture, but does my eighteen-year-old heroine? I realised I’d unwittingly broken an important rule of POV. The great literary agent Evan Marshall in his Writing Tip 12, said “describe people, places and things in the vernacular of the viewpoint character”.

I went back to the drawing board.

Where am I looking?

Where am I looking?

My heroine has been raised in a convent in rural France in the early 1800s. She is observant but she has never seen a well-to-do townhouse before. What would she notice?

  • the grandeur (but not the architectural period!)
  • the dazzling colours,
  • the fine rugs,
  • the warmth,
  • the vastness of the rooms,
  • framed paintings (but not the artist or the medium oil/pastel),
  • and the scent of the house.

The character’s vocabulary should be in line with her life experience. You don’t want a character spouting technical words out of the blue! If they do have special knowledge, explain how this came about and work it into the plot.

  • Our heroine has helped the nuns and monks to gather herbs and prepare medicines while she was growing up.
  • She’ll therefore be able to name plants and compounds.
  • Although she can read and write, her perspective nevertheless is still shaped by the sheltered, almost medieval world of the convent, and will collide with what she sees in 1820s Paris, so her personal reaction to what she sees is as important as the descriptions.

Do you ever find yourself slipping out of viewpoint character? Do you have any tips?

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15 thoughts on “That’s not my point of view! Keeping characters in character

  1. One strategy that some of my writer friends swear by role-playing: whenever they’re preparing themselves to write, they have a conversation (either with a partner or, if they’re especially imaginative, on their own) while maintaining the guise of their POV character. This helps to prevent them from slipping. Personally, I’ve never found this approach helpful (I just don’t have a knack for it), but others might.

    • That’s an excellent idea! I might try to convince my writer friends to do that some time! Being aware of all these strategies helps find the one that most suits.

  2. If I had one quid for every time I’d gone through a chapter written in an American character’s POV and found them sounding very British… I’d have some money. It’s not even things like trousers vs. pants either, it’s things like saying ‘Well, I certainly wouldn’t do that’, rather than ‘Well, I definitely wouldn’t do that’. That ‘certainly’ plagues me at every turn…

  3. I’m always reluctant (perhaps it’s my downfall) to follow other people’s writing “rules”. Aquick peruse of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, for example, will show Jane Eyre as a little girl using words at the academic end of the Oxford Dictionary.

    • Rules are handy to know for when things go wrong (sort of like when you are half way through a self assembly furniture kit and realise the table legs are on backwards). But the greats still managed to write great literature without knowing the rules so we shouldn’t worry too much!

      That’s a wonderful observation about Jane Eyre. I’ll have to find my paperback copy. My own childhood was quite Bronte-esque but that’s another story…

    • Writers can get away with a lot, but it is a great rule to keep in mind. Marshall Evans gave the example of the Baby Jenks chapter in Anne Rice’s “Queen of the Damned”, which is written in a totally different style and POV to her usual world-weary and reflective vampires, Baby Jenks being a newly made outlaw vampire, unfamiliar with the ancient rules!

  4. This is so true and a very easy trap to fall into! I sometimes find when I go back for an edit that I have to adjust the way my characters see things to fall in line with their experiences, not mine. If you cause the reader to question in any way what the character is experiencing, then you’re bringing them out of the story, never a good thing to do 🙂

    • Absolutely, that’s a really good way of putting it! It’s very good to do a final check, not just on standard editing, but on the consistency of the character’s POV!

  5. Pingback: Flash Fiction: An exercise in POV | M. C. Dulac

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