Point of View: Keeping Your Voices Distinct
Most of the authors I know are women, and one of the biggest struggles I see with women authors is writing a realistic male character—or at least making the male protagonist’s voice distinctly different from that of his female counterpart.
Too often there is little variation in voice or tone when the point of view changes from female lead to male lead, and the reader is left to use the author’s visual hints to determine from whose eyes the reader is viewing the scene. And when this happens back and forth, over and over throughout the book, the reader can become bored or frustrated and may wonder why the author didn’t just write from one character’s point of view.
There are inherent differences in men and women in a general sense. Men generally don’t go on about their clothes the way women do, and they don’t focus as much on the furniture or the décor. Women don’t focus as much on the details about sports, sports figures, and cars. There are exceptions, of course, since I just edited something with a female lead who knows more about sports than most, and I’ve written about a female who loves classic cars—as I do. But I digress. There was a book a few years back where the male protagonist described his own flannel shirt on more than one occasion—the colors and softness, I believe—as well as the type of hat he wore and the dimensions of his kitchen. He sounded too much like the female lead, or the author, and I had a hard time finishing the book because of it.
What’s important to remember when writing from the point of view of more than one character is that no two people see the world the same way, whether that be the way they view the scenery, the way they express internal thoughts or verbal dialogue, or how they judge the passing of time, the color of the rug, or the barista behind the counter—none of these things should be the same.
More than anything, you have to know your characters. You have to know that Frank hates cats and shudders when he walks into Lisa’s apartment, seeing the cat on the couch. Does it matter to the story? Maybe, maybe not. But if Frank strolls into the apartment with the same nonchalance that Lisa does, greets the cat with the same greeting, etc., how does the reader even know it’s him?
In addition to what your characters like and don’t like, the way they speak should be second nature to you. Does your female character speak in a cutesy voice to her animals, plants, or babies? Does your male character have crude names for his body parts? If so, you’d never have your female character be harsh with her animals or your male call things by their anatomically correct names. And when you recognize and can relate to your characters like this, it makes it easier to write them naturally.
Other personality traits of your characters will also help you to keep their voices distinct as you write them. Is your female impatient? Is your male goofy and a little shy? How would these two characters interact? How would the scene flow from her point of view? And conversely, how would it look from his?
Now that you’ve got a handle on your characters’ traits, how do you keep track of all this? Lauren wrote an entire article on character sheets—a must-have for your writing toolbox. As you build your character, you use the character sheet to keep track of the idiosyncrasies that each character embodies. And as each character grows, so does the sheet—but so does your comfort with him as a unique individual. The more comfortable you are with your knowledge of your character, the better you’ll be able to articulate his voice to the reader.
I’ve focused on the male-female dynamic in this article, but this can apply to any novel where there is more than one point of view being portrayed—parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, etc. Challenge yourself to stay true to your character and never settle for a generic action or boring turn of phrase again.