The last in a three-part series on the six elements of a successful novel. In this post, we tackle characterisation and point of view (POV).
Becky Sharp didn’t so much as storm into my life as she – in typical fashion – bulldozed herself into it. And, in typical fashion, made no apologies for it. The illegitimate child of an artist, she was the charity case of a finishing school with one goal and one goal only: to ascend and dominate Victorian society by any means necessary, but preferably via a rich husband with a short life span.
I’m talking, of course, about Becky Sharp, the indomitable protagonist in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Becky has been called, amongst other things, one of the greatest anti-heroines of all time. Somehow, it seems fitting that she continues to set the standard for brilliant characterisation, almost 200 years after she burst into the public’s imagination in Thackeray’s novel.
It’s been 20 years since I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but I have never forgotten Becky Sharp. Movie adaptions of the novel have come and gone, but in my opinion, no actress has quite managed to nail her character on screen.
Becky Sharp is a shrewd, cunning opportunist. Most movie interpretations it seems, prefer to make apologies for her character, as if to make her more palatable to a movie audience. But such an approach is untrue to Becky’s character, because Becky Sharp does not do apologies. Quite the opposite in fact. She knew the type of person she was and made no apologies for it – she was honest that way.
Thinking about Becky Sharp brings me to Anna Karenina, literature’s other famous heroine, except Anna Karenina is the antithesis of Becky Sharp. When I got to the last page of Anna Karenina, I flung the book across the room as I was so incensed about her character. I thought she was selfish and indulgent. Days after, I was still talking about Anna, such was my visceral response to her character.
Why characterisation matters
That is the power of great characterisation. The novelist constructs a character that readers love or hate; they’re not on the fence. And even if your readers hate your character, they will still root for them, because they want them to win.
You may have the most amazing plot in the world, but if your characters are nothing but wooden caricatures, your novel will be dead in the water before you even start.
Anna Karenina (aka the ‘tragic heroine’) and Becky Sharp are famous characters in their own right. They live long in the memories of readers, because, to a certain extent, we know people like them in real life (or is it just me?).
We may oppose Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita on moral grounds, but we will never forget the characters in the novel.
So, you see, when it comes to novels, the character is everything.
How to create interesting characters for your novel
Start with someone you know
Most characters start out as an idea in the author’s mind. Most likely, the character is based on someone the author knows. By the time they start writing the novel, what started out as an framework based on someone they know becomes an interesting character in itself.
Be inspired by your every day life
You do not have to force yourself to create an interesting character. The key is to be alert and open to the possibilities around you…the media, your office, even the people you interact with during your weekly shop. These ‘natural interactions’ can also help ensure that your characters connect with your readers in way that will make them care about your novel.
Give them personality or physical traits
You can add some depth and dimension to your characters by giving them some personality or physical traits. For example, a meek and mild exterior that hides a conniving, Machiavellian mind. Or, by creating someone you admire or despise.
Which brings us to point of view in your novel…
What is point of view (POV) in a novel?
The POV is the narrator’s perspective. In Lionel Shriver’s 2005 Orange Prize winner, We Need to Talk about Kevin, we see events unfolding through Eva’s letters to her husband, Kevin’s father. In her letters, Eva readily admits to not loving her son, Kevin. A few days before his sixteenth birthday, Kevin kills nine students from his school in a Columbine-style massacre.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was successful, I believe, because of the writing style she used. The events of the novel are told from the protagonist’s POV. However, halfway through the novel, readers are given a shock that makes them revisit the protagonist’s view all over again.
There are three types of POV in a novel:
- First person: This is usually more intimate and gets the readers into the head of the narrator, putting them in the thick of the action. In Gone Girl, part of the book was written from Amy’s POV while the second half was written from Nick (her husband’s) POV. However, first person POV can be limiting in that the story can only be told from the character’s perspective. Things cannot happen unless the character is there
- Second person: This view is rarely used in fiction because it’s quite difficult to get right. The constant references to ‘you’ in a story (see POV examples below) can be jarring for a reader and ultimately result in a poor reading experience. I would even go as far as to say that second person POV is best for instructional prose
- Third person: Sometimes called the omniscient (God view). The story is told from an objective perspective, leaving the readers to make up their own minds about events in the novel.
Here’s an example of all three in action – same scene, different POVs:
I willed her to roll up her skirt a bit higher but she didn’t. She did, however, walk towards me and give me a casual wave when she walked past. Beside me, Lillian snickered.
‘You owe me five quid. A bet’s a bet.’
The second person is more difficult:
You willed her to roll up her skirt a bit higher but she didn’t. Instead, she walked towards you and Lillian, and gave you a wave when she walked past. Lillian snickered and turned towards you.
‘You owe me five quid. A bet’s a bet,’ she said.
Written in the third person – the film approach (usually, although some are filmed in the first person) – this would read:
The lady gave no indication that she saw the two teenagers staring at her. She walked towards them and, as she walked past, gave one of them a casual wave.
‘You owe me five quid. A bet’s a bet,’ she heard the girl snicker.
Take another look at the second person POV again. Somehow, it doesn’t quite ‘flow’ the way it ought to, does it? That’s why the first and third person are the most popular POV techniques used in writing fiction.
Over to you; how do you create compelling characters in your novels?
Also published on Medium.