As we’ve discussed the first-person/subjective narrator is limited to their own perspective on events; what they observe, what they’re told and what they think. This can make it difficult to portray the other characters in the story because the face they present to the narrator isn’t necessarily their true face. If we can’t see into the heads of the other characters or see where they go when the narrator isn’t around how can we suggest ulterior motives? Or how do we create the other characters’ backstories? How do we make them rounded individuals?
They need a voice that is different from the narrator’s, a motive and a world view. Obviously we can only reveal their motives or world view definitively if they reveal it to the narrator, everything else is implication. A common one might be wrinkling their nose in disgust at something, this can be a deliberate or a reflex action. If it’s deliberate then the character obviously doesn’t mind being caught showing disgust, however if it’s a reflex action then they might not intend to be caught in the action of showing disgust. We don’t have to tell the reader which, we could have the character do it deliberately in full view or we can have them caught in the act, unaware their doing it, or it can be fleeting as if they only pretended or quashed it quickly. There are a multitude of interpretations and each one implies something about the character. If they didn’t want to be caught showing disgust then why? Has the protagonist done something ‘heroic’ that they disapprove of? Has some one revealed a weakness they’re sneering at? Or are they sharing the disgust of the protagonist?
These seemingly little things all build up a picture of the character and they can be used to drop hints and red-herrings. Maybe they weren’t disgusted by the situation, maybe a fly flew into their face. It can produce the same reaction but once again for completely different reasons.
This brings us back to suggesting things about the character through their reaction to situations, as we discussed when we were looking at internal monologues. We can make characters try to mask their motivations through acting but they can get caught out with their reflex actions, like the wrinkled noses. Or we can have someone do something that might appear unexpected because they’re either pretending to be a different sort of person to their real self or because the narrator doesn’t know that about them.
Maybe think of it like a Clark Kent dynamic; on the outside he’s a mild mannered reporter but secretly he’s Superman. If we look at it from Lois’ perspective then Clark Kent stopping the getaway car and catching the baddies isn’t just surprising, it’s shocking. And yet it’s who Clark Kent really is, so we have to consider each of our secondary characters as being a bit like Clark Kent, they’ve got the exterior image concealing an interior reality.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narration/narrative see Finding Your Voice and Finding Your Perspective. You may also find my internal monologue series useful under Finding The Characters.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.