Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Character

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I always hear that writers shouldn't change point of view, but I see it done in books all the time. Why can't I do it?

“Point of view" is often used interchangeably with “perspective," and that's probably part of what's causing confusion here. Let's untangle this. For the purposes of fiction, think of point of view as the overall strategy that you use in a work of fiction, such as first person, third person limited, or third person omniscient. The point of view strategy is the element that applies to the whole of the work and you generally want to stay consistent on this. If you choose to use first person point of view, for example, you don't want to switch into third person limited half way through.

“Perspective," on the other hand, refers to the character through which the reader is viewing the world at any given time. Being in a character's perspective allows the narrator and reader access to that character's inner world.

So, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye uses a first person point of view strategy and is told from the perspective of Holden Caulfield all the way through. Got it? Most first person stories, as well as many third person stories, stay in a single character's perspective.

In some point of view strategies, however, you can shift perspective. For example:

Third person omniscient: includes access to many or all of the characters' perspectives, as in Alice Munro's “Labor Day Dinner," which focuses on numerous characters at a dinner party.

Third person limited: access to a few characters' perspectives, as in Charles Baxter's Saul and Patsy, which switches back and forth between two characters' perspectives, a husband and wife.

First person serial: a series of first person perspectives, as in Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter, which examines a tragedy in a small town through the eyes of four characters.

Changing perspectives is a tricky business and, as a result, you should tread carefully. Here are two rules of thumb:

One: You should have a compelling reason to change perspectives. Many beginning writers change with abandon, and arbitrary choices can make the reader feel lost and disoriented. Changing perspective also demands the reader readjust after being so invested in the character whose perspective came before. If the change is motivated by a purpose, you can make this worth the reader's while.

Two: When you change perspectives, you must make sure the reader knows which character she's viewing the story through—not just sometimes, but all the time. Changing perspective at chapter or section breaks can help with this clarity, but it is possible to change within paragraphs and still maintain clarity. (See Munro's “Labor Day Dinner.")

Admittedly, these are challenging tasks and that's one reason some writing teachers urge beginning writers to use only one character's perspective. It's helpful to avoid this confusing element of craft in order to practice the intricacies of character development, plotting, and setting. If you feel overwhelmed, this is a useful approach. But don't feel like changing perspectives is just for the heavy hitters. If you're ready for it, take a swing.

I've heard that too much phonetic spelling can be hard to read. How do I create the voice of a character who has a distinctive speech pattern or dialect without it?

Phonetic spelling can be downright frustrating if the reader has to puzzle out what each word means. It also runs the risk of creating characters that seem stereotyped or trivialized. In short, it's a great way to lose the reader. Yet, it's important to capture the individual nature of each character's voice. What to do?

One option is to choose a few defining pronunciations of a character's speech and use those consistently instead of phonetically spelling all or most of the words. (“It's this a-way.") But don't limit yourself to phonetic spelling alone. You can use word choice and sentence structure to create a readable and distinct voice. The sixteen-year-old narrator in Tom Paine's “The Anarchist Convention," for example, often uses the word “like" and sentence constructions hug close to his thought process:

Like a lot of this takes place before me and Nosebone got out there to the Anarchist Convention in Portland in the summer of 1994. Maybe you read about the convention in the newspapers, because of the marital law.

The narrator in Susan Starlight's “Mines" works at a youth prison. Her voice is constructed vividly using unconventional sentence structures, such as fragments and dropped subjects:

Buzzing in my head. Grandmere said we all got the pressure, inherited. Says I can't have salt or coffee, but she doesn't have to eat lunch here or stay awake looking at screens.

You can use this approach for dialects, too, by building on tendencies that are a result of the characters' native speech. The German language, for example, sometimes puts the verb at the end of a sentence, a mistake that slips into the English of native Germans, especially those new to the language. (“I go twice a week running.") If you're using a character with a dialect, listen to people whose native tongue is the same as your character's. It won't take long to pick up on the distinctive differences.