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Friday, July 26, 2013

Add Depth to Your Characters by Using the Narrative Part of Your Scenes

by Edie Melson

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). 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 framework in place. 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.

Edie Melson is the author of four books, as well as a freelance editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. Her popular blog, The Write Conversation, reaches thousands of writers each month, and she’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her bestselling ebook on social media has just been updated and re-released as Connections: Social Media & Networking Techniques for Writers. She’s the Social Media Mentor at My Book Therapy and the social media director for Southern Writers Magazine. You can connect with Edie through Twitter and Facebook.


  1. I appreciated this insight. Asking the character why they are noticing these things is so pivotal. In real life how often do we notice something no one else does. Smells can evoke different memories for different people. The sound of water can be relaxing or fear evoking depending on past experiences. Excellent explanation. Thanks,
    Cindy Huff

  2. "We live in a world rich with sights, sounds, smells, etc. And we all have different filters." That passage is a major AHA! moment for me. What a great way of explaining why characters notice or don't notice certain parts of their surroundings.

    Thank you so much.

  3. But this can be overdone, too. There can be TOO MUCH sensory stimulus from the narrative. I can't tell you how many books I've read where the POV person describes what another person is wearing, when it just doesn't matter, and I, frankly, don't care. It doesn't move the story along, and if you do it too much, it drags it down. There is an art to getting it right, otherwise you have so much "she stared at the lemon yellow walls," it detracts from the action. I do agree that it CAN help the reader get to know the character better, but there are other ways to do that, too. And if you're writing in Deep POV, I don't think you need to go nuts with sensory description -- I think it's unusual for us to actually pay attention to every detail that's going on around us every minute of our lives. Some things stand out -- that's what you notice, and that's what you write about. But not everything.

  4. Ooh, this is a good one - it's going in my personal archive of excellent writing advice! :) Can't wait to try it out next time I get the chance to pull out my book! Thanks so much.


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