Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fiction Facts—Use the Narrative of Your Story to Add Depth to Your Characters

I love to read, and I spend a lot of my reading time with novels. I also spend a lot of my editing time working with fiction writers. And one thing almost all beginning (and some not so beginning) writers struggle with is characterization. 

And I’ve found one way to add depth to your characters is through the narrative.

The narrative is the part of the book that isn’t dialogue. It’s mainly classified as description, but when done right is so much more. It sets the stage for the reader, giving them a context for the story. It involves all five of the senses, and there is definitely a learning curve to getting it right.

But the key to good narrative is POV. Point of View is determined by whose eyes the reader is seeing the scene through. I don’t want to go into all the rules of POV here, but instead want to give you some things to consider when you’re describing what we’re experiencing through a character’s POV.

When I’m writing a scene the first thing I do is get the basics down. For me, that’s dialogue. I tend to hear my characters’ voices in my head before I see the story unfold. After I have the basis of the scene, I go back and begin to fill in the setting. Here’s what I ask the POV character to help me visualize what’s happening:

What does the setting look like. If it’s a room, I want to know about the lighting and the size and the furnishings. If it’s out of doors, I want to know what time of day it is and what the surroundings are.

Then I move on and ask the character what he’s hearing around him.

I ask what he’s smelling.

I also ask about touch and even taste.

And here’s where it ties into characterization.

I ask my character WHY he’s noticing these things.

Think about it. We live in a world rich with sights, sounds, smells, etc. And we all have different filters. Put seven people in a room for five minutes, then remove them and ask them to describe their experiences and you’ll get different things from different people. Maybe one person noticed the smell of the lilacs in a vase on a table. Ask why and you may find out that lilacs were his mother’s favorite flower or a scent his grandmother always wore.

Another person will mention the lemon yellow of the walls. Perhaps it’s the same shade her mother painted the kitchen in the house where she grew up. The possibilities are endless and the answers your characters give will often surprise you.

Everything your character notices won’t necessarily have a story behind it. Sometimes something just catches our eye, with no rhyme or reason. But take time to ask your character why and the insights you’ll uncover will add a depth and dimension to your writing, just wait and see.

Practice Point: Take a scene you’ve written and ask your POV character why they noticed the things they did. Then share your discoveries here, in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!


  1. Hi Edie,

    I'm a SOTP writer, so I don't really do this on a conscious level. When I write, I just jump into the character and become them.

    That said, these are great tips. If I get stuck, I'm sure they'll come in handy.

    Susan :)

    1. Susan, I'm a SOTP, too. I go back and use this technique during my editing phase. Thanks for sharing your process! Blessings, E

  2. Edie, thank for this post. You answered my most recent writing question. I'm off to question my POV character. :-)

  3. The point of asking the characters WHY they notice what they do is great. And one I'd not heard of before. Thanks for the tips, Edie.

    1. I hadn't heard this one before either. Great pointer. I'll definitely use it.

    2. I hadn't heard this one before either. I'll definitely use it. Great pointer.

  4. Hi Edie! In recent years, I've improved on my characterization and it comes a lot easier now.

    If I were one of those seven people in that room, I'd notice the lilac but for a different reason than you gave. I'm quite allergic to it. That and lavendar, which is terrible because they're so pretty.


  5. Ah...the missing piece to the puzzle. Thank you! Looking back over my work, I do this, but it wasn't done on a conscious level. It'll be upfront in my mind from now on. Great post!

    Sophia Ryan
    --She Likes It Irish
    --In The Bad Boy's Bed

  6. Thanks, Edie. You have shown me how to address setting in a way that has eluded me before. I'm going to use this technique.

  7. I have been handed the key to editing my novel.....THANK YOU!!!!!

  8. I teach literature at the high school level and POV is one of the first things we discuss. Your questions--from an author and editor's point of view-will add a different level to our discussion of POV this year! Thank you for sharing.