Painting Characters

Painting With A Character’s Brush

By Janell Looney

Every aspect of our own personal history colors the way we experience the world around us. The same must be true for the story world as experienced by our characters. Effective use of point of view (POV) means far more than staying in one character’s head, describing events through her eyes. Her personality, her history, her view of the world, must affect every aspect of the way she narrates those events.

Let’s create two Janes. Socialite Jane, the daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO, grew up in Manhattan and attended boarding school in Europe. Farmer Jane grew up in Iowa and has never ventured past her state borders. Both Janes meet Johns.

Which meeting does the following passage describe?

Jane heard a sound behind her. She turned around. A man–a big man, with shoulders nearly as wide as the doorway–blocked the sunlight from outside. His features hid in shadows, except for his firm jaw. His hair was the color of butter.

Which Jane? We don’t know, because nothing in that passage was specific to either of the characters we created. It was generic, a passage that could’ve been used in nearly any story with any characters.

How about these two paragraphs?

When she heard the door open, Jane dropped her shovel and spun around. Yowza! The man in the doorway was built like a bull. Even from a stall away, the energy harnessed in his broad shoulders made her palms itch. His hair was the color of the hay she’d spent half her life baling.

Jane glanced back over her shoulder. Well, well. The man in the doorway was definitely worth standing up for, in spite of his off-the-rack suit. His hair was the buttery color of her favorite leather jacket, the one she bought at an open-air market in Madrid. No–Florence, beside the river.

Pretty easy to determine which Jane met John in each of those passages, because each meeting was shown through the filter of its Jane. Only Socialite Jane would recognize immediately the poor quality of his suit. Only Farmer Jane would compare the color of his hair to that of hay.

Keep this idea in mind as you pick up a novel by one of your favorite authors. JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts) does a great job with her In Death series. Eve Dallas is a police detective in the year 2058. When she sees commuter buses flying past her apartment window, she doesn’t act surprised. This is a normal, everyday element of her world. The only reason she thinks of the bus is that the bored commuters might be trying to sneak a peek of her in her bathrobe.

By filtering the setting through Eve’s eyes, the author manages to enrich the story world for us twofold. She tells us a detail that we think is pretty neat (flying buses) and reveals the world weariness of her viewpoint character.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, the heroine of the alphabet mysteries (A is for Alibi…), loves tiny houses. The smaller, the better. So when she walks into a small house, she describes it as “neat and cozy.” Another person would label the same space “constricting.”

Part of the creative joy of being a writer comes from being able to live inside another person’s skin for a while. Don’t take that experience lightly. Go all the way. Use the words your character would use. Notice the things she would notice, ignore the things she would ignore. Every word, every thought expressed in your story should be expressed through the experiences and the history of your viewpoint character.

Paint the story world with the character’s own brush, and you’ll give your readers the chance to live inside her skin, too. Believe me, they’ll thank you for it.