It sounds simple of course but I really didn’t discover this until recently. To be more precise after I finished writing Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel. I decided (unwisely I now know) to use eight different points of view to tell the story. This was a challenge of course and one I think I met for the most part, except for one thing – two of my male characters were often confused with each other by my readers. I thought it was enough to differentiate them – one was gay, lived in Cornwall and was a new age writer; the other was in love with the main female character Jane, lived in Boston and was an antiquarian bookdealer. But ultimately they often appeared the same because their thoughts were both focused on Jane, worrying about her and trying to anticipate her next move. It also didn’t help that both men’s name started with J…
We learn of course by our mistakes and I am much more aware now, how important focus is. It doesn’t just dictate our character’s thoughts (and ours for that matter) but also how a character dresses, acts and treats others and ultimately dictates the course of the whole novel.
In Fifty Shades of Grey the main character’s focus is of course on the sexy but rather twisted Christian Grey. In the novel James labels her character Ana’s thoughts as sometimes “my inner goddess” or “my subconcious”. These “other” voices occasionally clash with her general thoughts but for the most part Ana’s focus collectively remains on Grey’s delectable hips.
In Bernard Schlink’s The Weekend: A Novel it is hard to keep track of the characters at times but when we do move closer to them I noticed that Schlink had given them all different concerns; if they were focusing on the same thing ie their friend, a former terrorist released from prison after serving a long sentence – then they were depicted with varying viewpoints. Reading this novel was a real eye-opener for me in regards to differentiating characters.
I realise now too, how brilliant one of my long time favourite writers is at this. I remember in Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shellseekers, when we are introduced to Noel all he’s thinking about (I’m writing this from memory) is his clothes and the heating in his flat. And that’s all that is really important to this character because he’s totally self-absorbed. Never mind that his mother is ill, material things are more important and this is all just in the first paragraph introducing him – a brilliant example of determining a character’s focus quickly. Pilcher can do this very artfully in her short stories in just a few lines and that’s why I love her!
I used to think that as long as you managed to get in a character’s physical description and emotional makeup, were careful how they spoke and dressed, then they would all appear different from each other. But of course that’s not necessarily true. I’ve learnt this lesson after years of hard work. It’s all so obvious now but the knowledge has come to me at a time when I actually can’t put it into practice! In my current novel I am unable to go into the mind of my character. We can only judge her by what she says and does. Her diaries tell us some things but the reader has to guess her focus.
As you can guess by this, I love to set myself challenges and I will report on my blog with what I’ve learnt from this exercise in the near future. In the meantime back to The Grey Silk Purse.