First Person POV and Developing Other Characters

I’ve been busy reworking my novel. A YA science fiction romp where a couple things blow up. It’s written in first person present tense, in dialect, and there are a lot of strengths and weaknesses to that POV. One major strength is that readers get to know my main character incredibly well. But the flipside of that is it’s incredibly challenging to get to know other characters, unless I make an explicit effort.

This round of edits, I’m focusing on exactly that. I have a handful of important characters who are critical to my main character’s plot. But in previous versions of the novel, that’s kind of where it ended. When they were useful to him, they showed up, and when they weren’t, they kind of wandered off, and there was no real sense of who they were or what they wanted.

It’s hard for me to see this, because I wrote the novel, so of course I know these characters. They’re not side characters to me, they just don’t happen to be the main character. If I wanted to, I could turn around and write the same timeline from their perspective if I wanted to. I see their lives leading up to this book, and their lives after this book. I know what these people would do given certain situations. I know what makes them tick.

Which is cool, you know? But doesn’t do me a bit of good if the reader doesn’t get to see it.

So this round, I’m sitting down with each character and thinking through their story in this story. How did they get here exactly. What do they want. How do their wants change as the story goes on. What are they doing while they’re offscreen. I have to make sure every action they take is true to them. Basically, I’m doing a high-level outline of these characters’ stories, while I work on the detailed outline of my main character’s story.

It’s not enough for me to know these characters, it seems. I have to stop and asses every point in the novel to ensure the characters are staying true to who they are, and not doing things just because they are convenient to the plot. And as I go, I work on ways to make sure these motivations come through, figure out what events need to happen and what details need to be exposed, to ensure their stories come through clearly. It’s time-consuming to be sure, but as I work through this process, I feel like the story is becoming stronger for it.

Does this work? Well so far it feels pretty right! I’ll let you know how the final draft lands.

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  1. Jennifer RDonohue
    04/05/2012 at 2:16 pm Permalink

    It sounds like it ought to work! I’m about halfway through a first draft, also in first person, and I’m well aware that I need to go back and finish fleshing out the other characters. I don’t even necessarily have their full stories in my head, the way you do; I needed them, just as my narrator did, and they appeared for that reason.

  2. Elizabeth Towns
    06/05/2012 at 6:17 am Permalink

    Recently in my writing group, we discussed just this subject. A couple of the members are published and one of their techniques was to write out the characters in advance – kind of like a short biography of each character. I have been doing that now and it is intriguing. I love it. Now that I am reading how you are working your characters, I can add that. Thanks for sharing. I will be interested to see how this turns out for you.


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