Different people write prose differently. This goes without saying. I’m sure there are even those out there who make a living out of deciphering people’s personalities via word choice—who you are shows up in your writing, that’s just how it is. At the same time, however, you have to concede to the personality of the character you’re writing. Sometimes, the word that you’d prefer to use your character would likely balk at should they ever find you were writing their story, and sometimes, the things you want to describe in a scene your character probably wouldn’t even notice in that situation. This issue is furth amplified by multiple points of view, where you have to take all of this into account, and make sure it changes from person to person—which is what I’m concentrating on in this article: the immediate differences between different points of view in the same body of prose. After all, even if you’re not giving way to your character as much as you should, if there’s no basis of comparison it’s not like the majority of people would notice (though sharper people might, so for the love of all that is holy, shake it up.)

I read somewhere (wish I knew where) that word choice is a monumental deal when you’re writing different points of view. Quite simply, the hobo living just this side of the gutter is not going to have the same sort of vocabulary as the valedictorian from Oxford or what have you, so their points of view are going to be wildly different from the get-go. I know it’s tough, but try not to show off how smart you are at the expense of characterization, because we all know how that turns out. This is probably going to be more obvious in first person, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t also be important in third.

Your narrative distance (there’s an article that was written not too long ago about that very topic, so you should totally check it out) plays a big part in this, naturally. If you’re in omniscient mode, this article probably doesn’t apply at all. If you’re in that sort of distant third person, where you can switch freely between POVs without breaks or anything, then it applies somewhat less (whether that’s a plus or a minus depends on the writer, I think.) If you’re in very ‘close’ third person or in first person, then hell yeah, this is all you. Vocabulary, sentence structure, all that beautiful stuff is going to switch up between characters. After all, everyone has different backgrounds and even people with very similar personalities probably don’t view the world in the same way.

Just to show how different prose gives a different preception of character, I’ll use the same character observing the same things in two different voices.

Jack had never been much for house work, and though half a decade separated them, it was clear this had yet to change. Amerie observed the man quite desperately needed a maid, as his house was in a state of utter disarray, books and boxes strewn this way and that across the floor, and there were several inches of dust building on every open surface. Not to mention the dubious substances building up on the carpet that, if you stared at them long enough, became rather terrifying to behold.

Versus:

Amerie remembered how Jack had always been fine with rolling around in his own filth when they were teenagers. Five years later, and not only could he still not clean for shit, but he still didn’t have the good sense to hire a maid to do it for him. You couldn’t take half a step through his house without tripping over a junk-filled box or toppled book-pile, and the dust on the walls had built up so thickly that breathing was genuine torture. And then there was that infected-looking stain that was spreading over the rug which, now that he noticed it, was really starting to creep Amerie out.

I probably could have made those quite a bit shorter, but I think they both illustrate what I’m getting at. They’re both thinking and describing the same things, but due to the very structure of how they convey it, it still gives the impression of two completely seperate people.

This brings me to my next point. Superficial differences are, obviously, not all that matter. Attitude is also absurdly important, and when used in conjunction with the superficial differences, give a much clearer picture of the individual who’s behind them. Like, random example, a character sees the color red—one version of the character describes it as being poppy red, but another, completely different version of a character might say it reminds them of communism. Little things like that speak volumes about a character, and you should always be aware of those small moments so you can take advantage of them.

Also, if the characters in the previous paragraphs were two different people, then it would stand to reason that they would describe different things, in addition to describing the same things differently. Maybe they wouldn’t really notice the dust, would just be a little irritated at stumbling over nonsense every two seconds, and would instead concentrate on the strange globe in the room the other protagnist failed to notice. And maybe they’d find the stain on the floor to be, instead of scary, almost endearing in its unabashed grotuesqueness. Or, hey, maybe they wouldn’t notice the dearth of floor at all, and you would actually need a non-POV character to ask in eye-popping frustration, “How do you live like this?!”

A good, fun way to work on this is having two seperate characters meet the same person or go to the same place and have the person/thing desribed, because it’s a good, showy way to illustrate the differences in these two characters, and to further back up characterization.

Even what I’m just going to call the ‘wind’ of the character will change. That is, how much time they spend describing or thinking about a certain thing. This is the difference between a three page soliloquy about the blinding beauty of a certain shade of azure and the pure, the almost earthly sphere-ness of a specific shape, and a description like, “It was blue and round and fluffy, and it was the ugliest cow he’d ever seen.”

In spite of all I’ve said, subtlety is not a bad thing. The differences don’t have to be immediately obvious or smack you in the face, but they shouldn’t be utterly nonexistent either, unless, of course, you’re doing it on purpose. People’s intricacies are often very subdued when viewed from outside, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be kept that way on paper, as long as the author is sure to make it interesting.

Even though it’s good to have variation between different POVs so that the two characters are actually distinct, I guess there’s just one thing to take into account: don’t make it too jarring. I myself am not sure if there’s a specific point at which prose begin to clash with one another. This is where the combination of style and skill come into play, and while one writer might make an absolute travesty out of their attempt to try different styles, the other might be incredibly good at it and it enriches their writing instead of detracting from it. It’s probably up to the writer to be able to tell for themselves whether their approach is good or not, and how different they want the various characters to appear.

Anyway, if you’ve managed to get all the way through this long-winded and somewhat scatter-brained article, congratulations. I hope it did you less harm than good.

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Comment

  1. Snow White Queen on 1 September 2011, 20:56 said:

    This is a great (and timely) article. :)

  2. No One on 1 September 2011, 22:59 said:

    Good stuff, mate. Very helpful, especially since I’m writing a story with multiple POVs.

  3. swenson on 1 September 2011, 23:33 said:

    I really like this article. It’s both important and useful, which is always good!

    And I love your example. Even just that simple example expresses your point very well. Even though I don’t know anything at all about these characters and their story, the word choice and description tells me a lot about them. In the first, Amerie appears to be a well-spoken person who kind of likes Jack, even as she notices the mess, whereas in the second, it’s obvious she has a very low opinion of him and a much harsher way of speaking.

    Overall, great article!

  4. Jack Mynock on 2 September 2011, 17:14 said:

    An exercise I enjoy is to imagine each of your characters witnessed the same crime, something simple and sudden like a convenience store robbery. How would each character describe the perpetrator to the police or a sketch artist? What would each have noticed?

  5. Klutor the Ninth on 8 September 2011, 05:32 said:

    Quite simply, the hobo living just this side of the gutter is not going to have the same sort of vocabulary as the valedictorian from Oxford or what have you, so their points of view are going to be wildly different from the get-go.

    Indeed. I wish more authors would see this. Case in point: Smeyer (again). Bree Tanner is supposedly a poor little girl who grew up on the streets, but she doesn’t sound like one. She sounds like an immature, but very rich and snobby, middle-aged woman (geez, I wonder why that is…).

    If you’re in very ‘close’ third person or in first person, then hell yeah, this is all you. Vocabulary, sentence structure, all that beautiful stuff is going to switch up between characters. After all, everyone has different backgrounds and even people with very similar personalities probably don’t view the world in the same way.

    That’s something I really aim for. Funny thing is, I think I’m actually not that bad at doing it.

    This is the difference between a three page soliloquy about the blinding beauty of a certain shade of azure and the pure, the almost earthly sphere-ness of a specific shape, and a description like, “It was blue and round and fluffy, and it was the ugliest cow he’d ever seen.”

    Nobody in my writing ever does a three-page soliloquy about the blinding beauty of anything. :-P

    Very helpful, especially since I’m writing a story with multiple POVs.

    I almost always have multiple POVs. It just comes naturally for me – I’m not saying I’m the best, I’m just saying that it is the best option for me.