First Person, Multiple Perspectives
I write my books in first person, multiple perspectives – in other words, through the eyes of different characters. Usually I will write alternating chapters through the perspectives of both the lead male and lead female characters, and on occasion there might be a third character, or even more. In my trilogy The Guardians of Time, the first book, The Named, was through the viewpoints of Isabel and Ethan. The second book, The Dark, was through Isabel and Arkarian’s views. While in the third, The Key, I chose two different characters’ views, that of Matt and Rochelle. Why did I decide on first person, and in multiple perspectives? It goes back to when I began writing about twenty-five years ago. I experimented with third person versus first and found I enjoyed writing in first person the most. It was intimate, and it put me straight into the heads of my characters.
But writing in the first person has its restrictions, and I wanted to tell more of the story than only one character could provide. For example, say I wanted to show what was happening to Matt in Greece in The Dark, I couldn’t have done so unless either Isabel or Arkarian were witnesses, but in that case I wouldn’t get Matt’s inner thoughts. That’s why I decided to try writing in duel perspectives. It started with Kate and Jarrod in Old Magic, which was my first book, published for the first time in the year 2000. I was hooked on this style, and I still use it today.
But writing in multiple view-points can be difficult to pull off successfully. You need to give your characters individual voices. They have to maintain their distinct sound right through the entire book or series. You do not want your reader flipping back to the start of the chapter all the time to check who is speaking. This will quickly irritate your reader and they might even give up altogether. Reading is a relaxing pastime, it’s not meant to be hard work.
To make multiple character viewpoints distinctive, the first and most important thing is to know your characters. I’m always squawking on about writing plans and outlines, but even if you like to wing it, to write your book by the seat of your pants, if you’re writing multiple perspectives you need to know your characters intimately. Who they are, what they think, feel, even what they dream and aspire to become. And to do this effectively, you need to prepare Character Profiles. These are essential for writing in multiple viewpoints, especially if you are writing from both a male and a female perspective, and for the duration of more than one book.
Your profiles should include such things as:
- Description – starting with the obvious, what your characters look like – from physical appearance of hair, eyes, body shape and height to the scar behind the right ear – and importantly, how he/she got that scar behind the right ear. Did he save his twin brother from injury during an accident, revealing his ‘hero’ quality, his strong protective instincts? Or did it happen when the pesky five-year-old kid next door threw a plastic wheelbarrow over his head after he teased her about being a weak little girl. If it reveals his/her personality, it goes in the profile.
- Speech – how does your character talk? With a lisp, an accent, a stutter? Is she educated, or did she drop out of school young, leave home because an older step-brother abused her? Or does he sound like an English professor, a lyrical poet, a teenager from a low socio economic area? Does she talk with her hands? Are they always moving to make her point? Does she fidget, revealing indecision or nervousness? Does she sometimes forget she’s talking to an adult because she’s so used to talking baby talk with her two-year-old daughter, it’s been just the two of them for so long. Does your character run his mouth off, especially when he’s nervous, or is he so at peace that he is almost always calm, speaks few words but every word is effective.
- Some writers like to pin a photo of their character near their computer while writing in that character’s viewpoint, swapping the picture when changing characters. Personally, I don’t do this because I usually get a strong visual image of my characters from the start, and if not, I will have by the time I finish the Character Profiles. But it’s also because I don’t like my characters resembling actors or models or someone I might know in case I inadvertently inject what I know of that person or actor’s personality, quirkiness or character trait into my character. But it works for others, and if you’re struggling to recall the physical image you created, then by all means try using a picture.
- Being aware of your character’s body language will also help to make your characters distinct. Is their smile straight, curved or crooked? Is it only crooked when he’s teasing a girl? Is it straight when he’s upset? Are your characters impatient, always pacing the floor, or fiddling with a chain in their pocket? Is there a reason she’s always closing her hand around the antique locket she wears around her neck? Did someone special give it to her, or did she wrench it off her grandmother’s neck after she stuck a knife into the old woman’s heart? You also should think about how your characters move, how they use their hands, cross their feet, rub the backs of their necks. You have probably read many times how the worried man rakes his hands through his hair, the girl twirls her curls, or tucks her hair behind her ears. The thing she does that none of your other characters do will help to make her distinctive.
- Giving your characters depth and making them true to life is what you want to aim for, the individual, memorable characters that no one can forget. These are the characters that readers can relate to, the characters that have a history, a past, a family, even if it’s her ‘family’ from the five years she spent in juvenile detention. To achieve character depth, you also need to give them regular, everyday attributes such as good qualities and flaws. Everyone has them. But whatever the flaw or possible heroic quality you give them, you must also give them a reason for it. Like the girl who gets vertigo whenever she nears the edge of a cliff because her mother committed suicide by jumping off one when she was fourteen.
- Resources – There is no set way to write a Character Profile. Some writers favour the Questionnaire where you fill in a list of questions. There are many good Internet sites where you can find these lists ready to print as well as giving you more information on this topic. Use the resources that are readily available to you.
- How to start – Always start with your character’s name – this is the first important step to preparing your character’s profile. You will be amazed at how much you get from a person’s name from appearance to personality. My own profiles are usually 1 to 2 pages long, in paragraph form. I don’t use lists, but topic headings. In the end they are your characters and you can make up your own profiles how you like. Experiment until you figure out what works best for you.
Good luck with your writing.