A story can be told from several viewpoints. When the main character narrates his experiences and observations, the author is using “first-person limited” point of view.
This viewpoint is autobiographical in nature. It is “limited” because the narrator only can tell what he perceives, not what other characters see, hear or think.
Consider this snippet, written to be told in first-person limited:
My back ached, and I tuned out my brother as wishing for a friend to tell my thoughts to; I had needed one ever since our father died during the last tourney a year ago, but now that Evod was head of the house, his single-mindedness in regaining our family’s pride prevented it as all we did was friggin train. For the time being, my inner ear would have to suffice. Odd how on our homeworld the males make the decisions while the females make the sacrifices.
We only know the world from the narrator’s perspective. We have no idea what Evod thinks about the narrator, his father, or their family duties except through the filter of the narrator.
There are several advantages to using first-person limited:
• Immediacy – Since the story is told as the main character makes observations, the reader in turn observes the story’s world as the same moment that the character does. This helps keep a strong flow of dramatic tension.
• Identification – This point of view typically makes identifying with the character easier for readers. They have a greater feeling of intimacy with him.
• Distinctive voice – Often a unique narrative voice is possible, which can make the story more interesting to the reader. In the above snippet, you gain a real sense of Nevar’s anger when she uses the word “friggin.” Her observation about the men making decisions and women the sacrifices also takes on a slightly more resentful tone than the original even though the exact same words are used.
• Control – The author arguably can better control flow of narrative when it is first-person limited. Because only one character’s perspective is told, the pace of what happens to that character primarily affects the story’s flow.
• Conversational – This viewpoint often sounds more conversational in tone. This allows for use of slang, jargon, and offbeat expressions, as in the novel and movie “A Clockwork Orange.”
• Awareness – This perspective sometimes is used because it allows for characters who are naïve, evil or mistaken to reveal their flaws even though they haven’t grown or changed during the story. Because the author can control the narrative flow, he can point out via the narrator’s errors in observation that a character fault exists. Readers picking up on this error find themselves contemplating if they themselves possess this fault.
Depending on the story you’re telling, first-person limited can be ill-suited. A few disadvantages of using this point of view include:
• The reliability of the narrator can be problematic – Since the narrator could be lying or distorting events, the reader may not identify with or understand that character.
• Any action not directly involving the narrator can’t be told – This can be limiting for an author, who may need to show how other characters react to an event with more depth or objectivity than the narrator’s perception of those characters can offer.
• Threats to the main character can seem less dramatic – The reader knows in advance that the narrator will survive, as a dead narrator can’t tell a story, after all.
• The main character typically can’t describe himself – When the narrator does, he runs the risk of sounding obnoxious, or the passage can appear forced.
Sometimes to critique an idea in a story, you might employ a milepost character. This is a character who never changes though the main character’s perspective of him does. It’s a term coined by David Smith in an article for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Suppose, for example, that you wanted to show how the idea of materialism is a bad concept. You might personify that idea through a milepost character, say a banker at a larger corporate financial institution. The banker could enjoy a life in which he wears the best clothing, drives the best cars, and owns the largest of houses.
At first, the focus character – who is a new employee at the bank – might admire the banker, who compliments him and is courteous to others. As the story evolves, however, the focus character may learn more about the banker, maybe catching the latter in a moment of criticizing the poor or turning down a house loan for a hard-working single mother. The focus character might chalk up the former to drink and the latter to “That’s business,” but it taints his perspective. Perhaps when the banker decides to foreclose on a long-time friend who’s missed two payments, the focus character’s views of what qualities are the best in humanity continues to transform. In this way, the reader along with the focus character begins to question the value of materialism.
In addition to critiquing an idea, the milepost character offers the obvious advantage of showing how the focus character is growing and developing. As if a scientific experiment, the reader now can use the milepost character as a basis of comparison with the focus character’s perspectives.
When creating a milepost character, avoid creating a flat stereotype. While the milepost character doesn’t grow, there ought to be good reasons for his motivations and actions (In the above example, for example, the banker might argue that he can’t help everyone or the institution would collapse, and that would be bad for the community overall, as the bank helps create businesses that employ people.). Rather than be a comic character (unless writing humor, of course), the milepost character can be somewhat tragic, a prisoner of his own inability to change or escape the trappings of the idea he personifies.
To ensure readers hold your story in high regard, you’ll want to avoid plot clichés, or overused literary devices, which typically are employed by lazy or unskilled writers.
One such plot cliché is the histrionic exit. This involves punctuating the end of a scene with a physical action aimed at evoking an emotional response in the reader. For example, after an argument between two characters, when one of them leaves he slams the door. The reader then would say, “Wow! That character is really angry!” The term was coined by CSFW’s David Smith.
Usually the writer includes a histrionic exit to make up for a lack of style in the scene. In the above example, as the writer fears that the argument didn’t sufficiently show the character’s anger, the physical action was added, like an exclamation point to a sentence.
The solution is to delete the physical action and fix the scene so the characters’ anger is apparent to readers. In the above case, the character might make cutting remarks or a description of them being angry, such as balling their hands into fists, could be included.
One area of character description that novice writers often overlook is physical gestures. That can be problematic.
For example, many novice writers will tell a characters’ emotional state rather than show it. Describing a character’s physical gestures and body movements, however, allows the reader to infer that emotional state while adding a level of detail to the text that helps the reader better imagine the scene and so become more engaged in the story. So rather than writing They grew sad upon hearing the news, instead show their sadness with Tears welled in their eyes at the news.
When doing this, selecting just the right physical detail is vital. After all, varying degrees of a general physical gesture infer quite different emotional states. For instance, if something humorous is said, a chuckle shows a stronger response than a grin but less of a response that an all-out laugh.
In addition, the description of the physical gesture must be balanced against its importance in the the rest of the story. You can’t be too spare in description but can’t be too long-winded, either. Learning exactly what is appropriate is a matter of mastering the craft of writing.
Finally, you’ll have to be consistent with the details. Two jokes of equal humor should generate the same response each time from a character. With a little creativity on the writer’s part, this physical tic even can be a marker that becomes associated with a specific character; consider that whenever Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame finds something interesting, he raises an eyebrow.
If you’re tempted to trick readers by having a portion of your story’s plot occur only in a dream, give serious second thought to it. Especially if writing science fiction, such a gimmick is a plot cliché.
When initially used decades ago, the plot within a dream was a clever twist. It suggested a hallucination on the part of the main character and left in question his sanity and even the nature of reality. Often it included symbolism that played a role in understanding the character or answering the story’s thematic questions.
Somewhere along the way, though, it became gimmicky and an inelegant solution to resolving story issues. Because of that, editors sometimes refer to it as the Bobby Ewing Gambit, named for a television show character who was killed off then after a season was brought back to the series; to explain why the character was dead for 20+ episodes, the opening scene of the year he returned shows his wife awakening from a dream. Yes, the entire season in which he’d been dead had only been a dream.
Having part of the plot occur within a dream poses all kinds of problems. One is the timeframe. In the Bobby Ewing show, the big question was how did his wife dream 20-plus hours of episodes in a single night of sleep. Guess she slept through the morning. Still, it strains credulity. In addition, if your dreamed plot is realistic then the overall story ceases to be as dreams generally are fantastical. In real life, people can’t fly and don’t just suddenly appear naked in public, yet in dreams that’s commonplace. Finally, you must be extremely careful in plotting how anything that occurs in a dream then relates to the real life portion of the story, Generally, what occurs in the dream should have no cause-and-effect connection to what occurs outside of the dream.
One last note note: Don’t confuse placing part of the plot inside a dream with the device of a literary dream. The term literary dream refers to showing a character’s inner feelings or to reveal some symbol key to understanding the story, not to actual dreaming.
Sometimes the plot of your story requires that the viewpoint character keep his identity secret from other characters. Such a character is known as a deceiver.
A good example of a deceiver occurs in “The Ten Commandments” motion picture when Moses, a popular and successful Egyptian general, learns he is of Hebrew descent and so goes into the slaves’ brickmaking camp to learn what life is like for his people. If he went in as a general, he would only see what the slavemasters wanted him to see and would not truly feel or understand the Hebrews’ plight. So he hides his identity and “pretends” to be a Hebrew.
There are a number of plot situations when a deceiver could be used:
• Traveling incognito – The character may want to learn the truth about what is going on. This works for anyone investigating a crime or spying in which sneaking around is necessary.
• Operating in disguise – If the character must accomplish some mission, he might wear costumes or change his identity. This allows the character to operate in the open rather than skulk about.
• Keeping identity secret as he’s really a superhero – A character may operate in the open but does not want anyone to connect him to his alter ego (such as Clark Kent doesn’t want anyone to know he’s Superman) because doing so would put him at risk and limit opportunities for the alter ego to solve problems.
A subtype of the deceiver character is the man on the make, a character whose deceptions form a coherent game plan that become apparent as the plot develops.
Sometimes as a writer you need to provide clues in a story. Mysteries, for example, center on solving a crime, such as a murder. Other genres typically involve some problem that must be addressed, and to that end usually the character must tease out the problem to understand it. Such clues can be provided by the use of foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is a hint of something to come. For example, you might note that a character who later meets an untimely end has a “grave expression” on their face.
Foreshadowing can ensure that readers won’t be disappointed when the mystery of the novel is finally revealed. The reader will remember the hint, which then makes the solution to or explanation of the mystery more plausible. Foreshadowing also can be used to provide a symbolic richness to the story. For example, John Steinbeck in “Of Mice and Men” has the character Lennie accidentally kill a mouse, a puppy, and then a woman. This hints at his own death.
This literary device can appear in a number of ways – a single word, actions by a character, the use of symbols, and so on. However used, it typically is quite subtle so as not to draw attention to itself.
The opposite of foreshadowing is the red herring, which is a hint meant to mislead readers. This frequently appears in mystery novels as figuring out who committed the crime is part of the fun of reading the novel. Closely related to foreshadowing is the flash forward, aka prolepsis, which occurs when the narrative actually jumps out of the timeline to the future.
As a plot develops, you’ll often need to change locations and times in a story. Your characters may be on a journey to some destination or they may need to investigate a matter. You might shift between the characters so that a scene involves the villain who is at a different location than the protagonist.
When making such changes, always ask yourself if it is necessary to further your plot. If the change is merely done because you want to share interesting notes that you’ve researched about a new locale, then it’s probably being done for its “ooh-and-ahh” factor rather than for dramatic tension. This is a problem particularly with science fiction and action-adventure stories in which elements of the story are more about the science or wonder of a place than any useful information that advances the story.
In addition, readers can become confused if you the suddenly shift the story’s location and time. One easy way to resolve this is to leave a blank line between scenes, which experienced readers will recognize as a demarcation between scenes. In ebooks, where blank lines typically appear between paragraphs, instead use asterisks or a typographical equivalent to mark the scene change.
Regardless if a blank line or asterisks are used, most location or time switches likely require describing the new scene’s landscape, if only via a phrase or clause, simply to orient the reader. Short stories due to their brevity can’t waste words on unnecessary description that slows the drama, however. Because of this, balancing the amount of description that must be provided against the dramatic need to do so.
While setting is a powerful element in a number of genres – especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure, and westerns – remember that keeping your story’s focus on character and action almost always will yield a bigger payoff.
Successfully building a character in a story almost always is the one challenge a writer absolutely must get right. It’s also often the most difficult challenge facing any writer.
To create a character, first ask yourself, “What matters most to him?” It might be duty, proving oneself to his father, knowing the truth, helping others, or any of a thousand other values that motivate people to behave in a specific way. Upon determining this value, devise a set of physical features and personality traits that lend themselves to revealing it.
Hence, don’t give a male character “blond” hair simply because that’s how you envision him. Instead, this blondness ought to serve a purpose – perhaps it shows him as youthful or possibly it’s because he spends a lot of time outdoors so the sun has “bleached” his hair color. This can be difficult as the more important a character is to a story, arguably, the more physical description of him should be given.
Of course, these qualities should result in a believable character. Even if writing genre fiction, you’re aiming for verisimilitude. Without that, readers will have difficulty identifying with the character.
Such believability can be established by creating the character in the world where your story occurs. That is, every character is extrapolated from a culture. Hence, a modern-day character who is a rogue might wear long, unkempt hair as would a pirate, but he probably wouldn’t don shorts with puffed sleeves and wear breeches, which are clothes out of the 1500s.
Another way to establish believability is to ensure that every reader understands how the character came to be the way he is. This may require you to create a biography or resume for your character; the bio and resume wouldn’t be provided in its entirety to readers but can help you as a writer think through how the character came to be the person he is. The relevant details then would be included in the story.
Always remain flexible as creating a character. Just because you’ve devised a character’s history, you’re not stuck with or limited to it. A character’s background can be changed as necessary while you write the story and develop him. The only rule is to be consistent in the presentation of the character’s background.
If introducing a character through some action, there’s no need to add that they “said” something and then provide their line of dialogue. Simply describing what they’re doing is sufficient to show that they are giving the next line of spoken dialogue – so long as that dialogue appears in the same paragraph as their described action.
For example, instead of writing:
The nurse decided to step in. She said, “Sweetheart we need to redo these stitches and then get you into surgery and fast. It is dangerous for you to be losing this much blood.”
The nurse decided to step in. “Sweetheart, we need to redo these stitches and then get you into surgery and fast. It is dangerous for you to be losing this much blood.”