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Monday, November 16

Why You Should Have Judgmental Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For a strong point of view, let your characters have strong opinions.

In real life, being judgmental might cause a few problems, but in fiction, it's something every character should aspire to. How characters—especially the point of view characters—judge the world around them shows readers what that world is like and how it works (and even non-genre writers need to world build, it's just a little different in the details).

Our characters see something, they judge it as it pertains to their personal views. If we write a scene where a girl walks a dog down the street, how our characters judge that will determine how we'll describe it and even how they'll react to it.

Someone afraid of dogs will see details that support that: large size, straining on a leash to bite them, big teeth. The judgment is "dogs are bad" and the reaction will reflect that.

Someone who loves dogs will see different details: floppy ears, tongue hanging out, straining to greet and lick everyone. The judgment is "dogs are cute" and the reaction will reflect that as well.

Someone who has never seen a dog before will see different details still: human overlord, quadrupedal locomotion device, snack on the go. The judgment is "whatever alien opinion" and we can have great fun reflecting that.

No matter who the character is, alien or human, they'll see something and judge it. How they see it says a lot of about them and brings a deeper layer to the character. If they don't care about anything at all, that can be reflected, too.

Point of view is all about character judgment.


If all a character does is describe what's physically there, we miss an opportunity to world build and flesh out that character. We create settings that are forgotten as soon as the characters walk out of them, and characters that are hard to remember who is who. We miss entire layers of the story because the point of view character doesn’t tell readers how they feel about anything. And then we'll have to work a lot harder to achieve the same things a few good point of view details can accomplish.

Here are four questions to ask to strengthen your point of view—and your novel.

1. Who’s describing the setting? Is it you, or the point of view character in the scene?


Point of view characters describe what matters in a scene, but there's usually a difference between what matters to them and what matters to the author. 

For example, if the character has zero interest in interior design, they're not likely to describe the antique furniture or notice what the drapes are made from. But if they judge the d├ęcor in a way that fits their personality, we can show both the room and how they feel about damask. More things to consider:
  • Are the details all basic and general or does the point of view character voice an opinion about them?
  • Can you tell how the point of view character feels about the setting by the words used to describe that setting?
  • Do the details evoke any emotions? Opinions?
How a character feels about the “room” around them gives just as much information about them as what they see. Take advantage of that.

(Here’s more on One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions) 

2. How do you describe the people in the scene?


Our first impressions and snap judgments reveal what our beliefs are. As authors, we can show an uptight and sheltered point of view character by having them react as such to a person who represents a "bad person" to that personality type. Or we can show a free and welcoming spirit by having them accept someone normally shunned based on appearance alone. Look at your scene and ask:
  • Can you get a sense of the point of view character's morality in this world/setting by how they describes those around them?
  • Do they give a sense of social structures?
  • Can you tell where the point of view character fits on the social ladder?
Humans are social creatures, so we like to know where we stand with others and how we fit in with the herd. How a character positions themselves compared to others tells readers much about who they are.

(Here’s more on How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Characters?) 



3. What do readers learn about the world?


Infodumps and backstory are common problems in a novel, and point of view is the easiest way to fix them. If you know how the point of view character judges the world and what they know about it, you know what you share with readers.

Critical information can be sneaked into the scene in a way that matters, because it actually matters to the point of view character. They aren’t just noticing soldiers beating up locals in the park to show a military occupation, they’re noticing it because they’re scared they’re next. Looks at you scene and ask:
  • Are there any aspects of the world that suggest the society as a whole?
  • Can you tell how this world works by observing it in this scene?
  • Do any differences from our world appear?
  • How does the point of view character feel about them?
There's a big difference between Soho, New York and Milton, Iowa. How your point of view character judges the world around them will show readers what they need to know about that world and the attitudes and views of the people living there. What flies in a gender-fluid big-city neighborhood probably won't go over the same in a small town in the Bible Belt, and vice versa. This is particularly critical in speculative fiction where cultures are not "the real world."

Use the judgement of your point of view character to sneak infodumps and backstory past your readers.

(Here’s more on Getting Mad: What Mad Men Can Teach Us About POV and World Building) 

4. What do readers learn about the point of view character?


We've probably all had a moment in our lives when someone we liked said something that made us look at them in a whole different light. Their judgment about something changed how we saw them as a person. This works for characters as well, and it fleshes out characters and shows readers who they are and how they fit into the story. Look at you character and ask:
  • Do they accept the rules of their society?
  • Are they typical, or do they have outlying views?
  • What kind of person are they?
  • What kind of person do they wish they could be?
If your point of view character is selfish, they might see nothing wrong with a selfish act, and will act selfishly. If they’re generous, they'll act and think that way.

Showing how a character acts and thinks helps readers get to know them without having to tell them.

(Here’s more on What’s the Emotional Core of Your Character?) 

Letting our characters judge and be judged in our novels helps us show, not tell, and adds layers of interest and complexity to those characters (and our story worlds). They won't seem two dimensional, but feel like textured people and places with virtues and flaws (that often contradict), and we can use those traits to craft more interesting stories.

Think about how your characters judge the world around them.


And not just the point of view characters—knowing how the other characters feel can help flesh them out as well, and create interesting conflicts when characters have different views on the same situation. The novel feels richer when not every character has the exact same opinion.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine a random scene from your current work in progress. Run through these questions and see where and how you can deepen the point of view and further develop the story.

Do your characters judge the world around them or do they just accept (and relay) it as it is?

*Originally published on Writers in the Storm, June 2015. 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you: 
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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