The key to creating the emotionally engaging character is point of view. Point of view is something I have found difficult to wrap my mind around for years while I was writing. I understood you pretty much stuck with that character in a scene, but I didn’t understand there were subtle elements that go into it. I’ll be discussing these today.
Point of view is biased.
We all have our opinions when it comes to things. We are born into families with certain way of looking at the world, and this will have some impact on how we continue to view the world as we become adults. Other influencers on our viewpoints stem from friends, our experiences, level of education, and other factors. The point is, we all have our biases, whether we want to admit them or not.
The easiest example I can give on varying viewpoints is the one that sparks the greatest fights, esp. on places like Facebook. Ever look at a political or religious rant on Facebook? Typically, there are a ton of comments beneath the post, and you’ll notice people have very strong opinions on these topics. Pay attention to the tone they are using. What emotions are prominent? How are these people justifying their views? Some will manage to keep a cool head. Some resort to name calling. You might even know some of these people are super sweet in real life and get surprised they are leaving the kind of comments they are. (I know I’ve been surprised.)
Now, let’s use another example that often evokes a lot of comments. When someone is in need of “thoughts and prayers” from family and friends because of death, illness, or a natural disaster, what do you notice in those comments? How do these comments differ from the political/religious ones? One I can tell you off the top of my head is that people (regardless of political/religious affiliations) will often rally around the person in need. So the person who might seem like a “jerk” in the political/religious comments, can be the most caring and sympathetic of all the comments in a totally different situation. Again, study the choice in words and what emotions are behind them.
Bottom line: the character isn’t “bad”, but the character does have a viewpoint that will contain some prejudice. No one is 100% apathetic to everything. There will be things the character loves and hates. Embrace these things when you’re writing in the character’s point of view.
Point of view can change over the course of the story.
The redeemed character is one of the most complex but also most powerful type. Case in point, Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic book, A Christmas Carol. He was stingy with his money in the beginning, but by the end, he became generous. Another (more contemporary example) is Lightning McQueen in the movie Cars. The hero starts out being selfish, but at the very end, he gives up the Piston Cup (his goal throughout the movie) in order to help out another car. In other words, he does a total reversal from being selfish to being selfless.
A good exercise is to watch movies or TV shows where the bad guy becomes good. Write down the things you notice as the story progresses. What were their thoughts/logic behind the choices they made? What behaviors follow these actions? How about after they change? What thoughts are behind the choices they make then? What behaviors result from these news choices?
Point of view allows for imperfections in the hero.
No one is perfect. None of us are born 100% happy 100% of the time. We have bad days. We aren’t always at our best. Your character is going to have these, too. Even if the character manages to bite their tongue and not slip in something rude, there’s going to be a wicked thought or temptation to blurt out something inappropriate. This makes the character more real.
Now, let’s look at what can happen if the character’s thoughts lead them to make the wrong decision. The truth is, even in real life, good people screw up and make bad decisions. Your character may say the wrong thing or may behave in a way that makes the reader go, “What the heck?” Point of view should clue the reader into why that character did what they did. Now, the important thing is that your hero doesn’t get stuck in this bad decision. The character may have to deal with the consequences of it, but the character should make up for their bad decision(s) by the end of the story.
When would the hero make the wrong decision? In a moment of weakness.
This could be stemmed from fear. Let’s say the character is afraid he’ll get shot. I can’t remember the name of the movie because I saw it when I was a kid, but there was a situation where a man ran into a family’s house because he was being pursued by a gang, who wanted to kill him. By entering their house, he put them (the innocent people) at risk. At the end, he went back outside, willing to die but knowing he had saved the lives of the innocent people. So the hero made a bad decision out of fear but redeemed that by doing the right thing, which in this case was tragic but heroic.
Another moment of weakness could stem from love. If the hero is afraid someone he loves will be hurt if he doesn’t act, he might make a bad decision. An example off the top of my head is Denzel Washington’s movie, John Q, where he holds some patients and staff at a hospital hostage (a bad thing) because he can’t get a life-saving surgery done for his son. His motive was love. One could also argue his motive was frustration because his insurance wouldn’t cover the operation, and no one was willing to work with him on the issue.
Not all bad decisions a character makes stems from evil motives. But the key is, what is the reasoning (aka point of view) the character uses to arrive the decision to act in the way they do. This also goes for good decisions, too.
I’ll go more into point of view in another post. I want to go into the magic of multiple points of view and how this technique can really make for awesome conflict in a story.