Last year 7 of my clients were contracted for the first time by some pretty prestigious publishing houses. In the current publishing climate that deserves a Wahoo! But it also warrants a bit of analysis. Why did those 7 manuscripts get across the line and not manuscripts from the other 15 clients who I either mentored or did manuscript assessments for. In a word, their strength was…
Each of those 7 ‘lucky’ authors had a strong grasp of viewpoint hold (sometimes called point of view) and as a result their characters came alive on the page. We saw the world through the filter of the character’s senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) and were privy to the character’s internal life (thoughts and feelings) which revealed inner conflicts that upped the ante of the external conflicts the character was already facing. Each genre has it’s own formula for how much of the character’s internal life should make it onto the page. Action adventure novels at the low end, romance and women’s fiction at the high end. But wherever your novel fits into that spectrum, you do need to understand and use viewpoint to make us care enough about your characters to read a whole book about them.
I recently assessed a manuscript that had viewpoint problems and I’d like to share here a small section of that report:
To create an internal life for the characters and thus build characterization, we need to know what characters are thinking and feeling. If the majority of the novel is action and dialogue with hardly any thoughts and feelings expressed, it doesn’t help us get to know your characters. And if we don’t know him and care about his journey, why should we bother to read about it?
The proviso here is that you only give us the thoughts of the character who has viewpoint at the time. Stay deep in their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, to help us bond with them and feel as if we are them for the period of time that we’re reading.
We need to feel the character’s fear, not just see the circumstances that would inspire fear. And I don’t mean to write He was scared. In a story written for adults you have to pull us into the character’s emotions by ‘showing’ them, not ‘telling’ us about them. Does his pulse jump when he’s excited? Does his heart slow when he’s scared? Does it thump unevenly when he’s terrified? Can he stride when he’s confident and stagger when he’s overwhelmed? Show us how his emotions affect him, and above all keep us in the loop with his thoughts. Not just thoughts about what’s happening right now. Memories, and visualizations of what you think the future may hold, both have the power to evoke emotion. You need to create a depth to the story because action and dialogue just skims the surface of the character’s experience of what’s happening. You have to make us feel if you want us to care!
Whenever I meet agents or publishers and ask them what they’re looking for, they always give me some version of “An interesting story with characters that I care about.” Every time. Interesting story (plot). Characters I care about (characterization).
Your number one tool to build characterization is viewpoint. Learn it (there are heaps of resources on the internet to help you and I’ve got one on my website here). Practise it. Get published!