Blog Archives

Revising Fiction: Character Viewpoint

by Kirt Hickman

Revising Fiction

Every scene must be shown from the viewpoint of one of your characters. In general, you should show the events from your hero’s point of view. The more you show from her viewpoint, the better your reader will get to know her and the more your reader will care about what happens to her. Choose an alternate viewpoint character when:

  • Your hero isn’t in the scene.
  • Another character is in the hot seat. Show the scene from the viewpoint of the character who has the most to lose if events go badly.
  • You must convey some overwhelmingly important piece of information your hero doesn’t know.

Viewpoint Violations
Make sure your scenes don’t express something your viewpoint character wouldn’t know, like what’s happening someplace else or the cause of a phenomenon he doesn’t understand. Don’t express the thoughts, emotions, or motivations of other characters, except as they are interpreted by your viewpoint character.

When you must convey pure information, include only facts being observed, heard, or considered by your viewpoint character. Doing so makes the information immediate and important. If you provide information your viewpoint character is not experiencing, it creates either a viewpoint violation or a digression. Your reader will recognize both.

Viewpoint, however, is not just about what your character knows or doesn’t know. Your character’s viewpoint must permeate every aspect of your writing, from the portrayal of her thoughts and emotions, to setting descriptions, level of detail and specificity, narrative tone, and even your word choices.

To do this, you must know your character’s likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests, attitude, age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic circumstances, and background. The more you know about your character, the more real she will be to you and to your reader.

Describe your setting in a way that reveals your viewpoint character’s attitude and emotional state. Is the room cramped, or cozy? Is it cluttered, or lived in? Consider this passage:

General Chang reclined in the womb of his stronghold with his feet propped on the conference table.

What does the word womb tell you about how Chang feels when he’s in the control room of his stronghold? Later I describe this room from the perspective of my hero, who has been brought there as a prisoner. He’s not going to think of it as a womb. Your word choice must reveal the attitude and emotional state of your viewpoint character.

Let character viewpoint define how many and which details to include in your descriptions. A character who’s interested in architecture would drive down a street and notice the buildings. A character who’s more interested in cars would notice those. A cop looking for a suspect or informant would focus on the people.

When Chase, an accident investigator in my science fiction novel Worlds Asunder, approaches a crash site, he has time to take in the details that are important to his case:

Chase’s first view of the Phoenix was a mere glint of sunlight on the horizon. As he drew closer, the fuselage came into view, jutting skyward from the flat terrain like a solitary tombstone in a field of glittering metal. The effect gave a surreal beauty to the desolate scene.

The pod came to a stop at the boundary of the debris field. The ship was close now. The fuselage, largely intact, rested at an odd angle at the end of a long scar in the landscape. A debris field stretched out to the northwest. Dents and cracks that marred the hull suggested that the ship had tumbled into its final resting place. The aft section, the cargo hold, was mangled.

Chase not only notices the details but also assesses what they tell him about the crash. Contrast this with the following passage, which takes place during a gunfight inside the enemy stronghold:

Two terrorists moved before them as they wound their way through the labyrinthine passages. The defenders stopped at each intersection to fire a few odd rounds, which slowed Chase and his party, but the men never stayed in one place for long. Twice the terrorists fired through a window to bring down isolation doors and seal off part of the complex.

Here you get only a vague sense of passages, windows, and pressure doors. I left out the details because Chase has neither the time nor the inclination to notice them.

Character viewpoint should also determine the language you use. People from different age groups, regions, countries, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, levels of education, time periods, and even genders speak differently. Write your narrative in your viewpoint character’s natural voice.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Revising Fiction: 13 Ways to Show Character Emotions, Part 3

by Kirt Hickman

This month’s column completes a three-part look at techniques that can help you show your characters’ emotions effectively. So far, we’ve learned to:

1. Use emotional honesty.
2. Convey the source of the emotion.
3. Avoid clichés.
4. Use metaphor.
5. Use concrete details.
6. Use internal monologue.
7. Use dialog.
8. Show physical response.

Additional techniques include:

9. Have the character respond to the emotion in an unexpected way.

Snider pulled Chase aside. “That was a lovely exercise,” he spat, “but you haven’t answered the basic question: Why?” Veins bulged in his forehead as he said the last word. His eyes, crazed as though he was on the verge of a breakdown, spoke of the unbelievable pressure that he must be under. Chase had thought he’d understood, but matters were apparently worse than he’d imagined.

“Look, Morgan.” Snider dropped his voice. “You must answer that question. And soon. I’m getting to the point where I don’t even care if it’s the right answer.” He looked Chase in the eye. “You hear what I’m saying?”

In this example from my science fiction novel, Worlds Asunder, Snider responds to his stress by essentially telling Chase to lie. This is surprising, because Snider’s primary concern has been his own reputation, which could be ruined by such a lie.

This technique can be tricky to employ because the emotional response must be believable, even though it’s unexpected. The key is to make it specific to the character. I do this here by incorporating one of Snider’s tag lines: “You hear what I’m saying?”

10. Use one emotion to express another.

The following day they received a broken transmission from Snider, crackling through a faulty connection in the comm gear. A pair of geologists had arrived on the scene and found Herrera’s bodyguard dead in the cabin. Chase swallowed hard and bowed his head for a moment…

“Everyone else is missing,” Snider finished.

The news was good and bad. It reminded Chase of the fragility of life and the cold ruthlessness of space. And he mourned the loss, even though he hadn’t known the man. But according to Snider’s report, the rover was still moving. Somehow the others had found the means to endure without the protection of a ship or habitat.

In this example, I talk about mourning over the man found in the wreckage, but because Chase didn’t know the man, there’s no basis for his grief. What he’s actually feeling is hope for those that still live. The mention of mourning is a way to express Chase’s hope by contrasting it with another, dissimilar, emotion.

11. Use external setting to mirror your character’s emotions.

In the following example, Bill has just awoken from a coma. Dana has stepped away from his bedside to allow the nurse to assess his condition. Notice how I use the sunlight in the hospital room to reflect Dana’s feelings.

The sun warmed the room through the durapane window, suddenly now bright and cheerful as if it had just risen. Dana returned to Bill’s side and kissed him again, this time on the mouth. “I thought I’d lost you.”

12. Use character action.

Gerri threw the contract onto the floor, snatched up her coat, and stormed from the room.

This example uses Gerri’s actions to show her anger.

13. Express the emotion in a way that is specific to the character.

[President Powers] felt like she had when she was twelve, when she and her friends were playing in the surf off the South Carolina coast. She’d waded in too far and a large wave had washed over her, pulled her under.

China armed in Earth orbit and the United States ignorant. She couldn’t breathe. A cold pressure squeezed in around her, holding her down while she was powerless to prevent it. She heard Norton slam the table through the muffled sound that filled her ears. They were arguing, Norton and O’Leary, but only Norton’s voice penetrated the president’s consciousness with the words incompetent and consequences.

Finally, like it had when she was twelve, the wave receded and she came up for air. She banged her cane on the hardwood floor to bring civility back to the meeting.

In this example, I use a specific event from President Powers’ childhood to express her sense of being overwhelmed in a way that is specific to her.

The techniques in this three-part column are valuable tools to master. If you’d like to see a more in-depth treatment of this topic, I recommend Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood.1

Read the first two parts of Kirt Hickman’s series:
“13 Ways to Show Character Emotions,” Part 1
“13 Ways to Show Character Emotions,” Part 2

1Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions, Story Press Books, 1998.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Sign Up for Elerts  Stay Connected

SWW YouTube Videos

Search Posts


More information about SWW Programs can be found on WhoFish.