Following on from last week about keeping your main character at the forefront of your story, we’ll look at the more technical side of character scenes, and how difficult it can be to keep the emphasis with your main character whenever possible.
The thing for writers to remember is that the only time the emphasis should not be with your protagonist is when the scene is from another character’s point of view, otherwise, the viewpoint and emphasis should be on your main character.When there are several characters within a scene, it’s very easy to let the secondary characters inadvertently steal a scene from your main character. Writers do this without even realising.
Here’s a simple example – the scene below is between John, who is the main character, and secondary character, Juliet:-
John peered out across the city and gathered his thoughts. He felt Juliet’s presence behind him, shifting with the shadows. But at least they’d be safe for tonight, although he knew he couldn’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard he tried.
‘We need to find a hotel,’ he said, as the darkness approached. ‘At least for tonight.’
‘They can’t track us, can they?’
‘No, they won’t find us, not here, not so far away from the city. Not unless we make stupid mistakes,’ he said.
Juliet hoped not. She couldn’t spend her whole life running, looking over her shoulder, forever looking at everyone with suspicion and dread, and she knew that she couldn’t rely on John’s protection for the rest of her life, but with so many gang members after her, she had no choice but to run.
Can you spot where the emphasis has shifted?
The scene is about the main character, John, so it starts off with his viewpoint and his thoughts, but it soon shifts towards the second character, Juliet, whose viewpoint and thoughts creep into the scene unnoticed.
The balance in the scene has shifted from one character to the other, so when this happens it creates an imbalance within scenes, especially when the focus really should be about your main character.
Here’s the scene again, but written correctly:
John peered out across the city and gathered his thoughts. He felt Juliet’s presence behind him, shifting with the shadows. But at least they’d be safe for tonight, although he knew he couldn’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard he tried.‘We need to find a hotel,’ he said, as the darkness approached. ‘At least for tonight.’
‘They can’t track us, can they?’‘No, they won’t find us, not here, not so far away from the city. Not unless we make stupid mistakes,’ he said.
Juliet hoped not.
John knew that Juliet couldn’t spend her whole life running, looking over her shoulder, forever looking at everyone with suspicion and dread, but with so many gang members after her, she had no choice but to run, and he felt he needed to protect her from them.It’s pretty much the same scene, but the emphasis remains on John. It’s his thoughts and emotions that are important, not so much Juliet’s, because it’s his viewpoint within that scene.
If there was a new scene or chapter, but from Juliet’s viewpoint, then the emphasis would likewise move entirely to her.
It’s very easy for these kinds of things to happen, and the reason it is difficult to spot is because there is nothing obvious, like a spelling mistake for instance, that jumps out for the writer. It’s so subtle sometimes that these things can slip by unnoticed, which is why writers should become attuned to spotting it within the narrative.While stories might have multiple viewpoints, one character at a time should dominate. It should be obvious to the reader whose viewpoint is being used.
This example is a start of a chapter, but whose viewpoint is it?Amy opened the door to the man on her doorstep. He was the last person she expected to see, and her expression soured.
‘Can I come in?’ Chris asked, clutching a bunch of flowers.Amy let her brother in, but didn’t say anything. She followed him into the front room, her silence almost forcing him down into the sofa to sit. She stood by her comfy armchair, arms folded like a defensive barrier.
‘You have no idea how much I hate you right now,’ she said.Chris placed the flowers on the table and attuned to the cold atmosphere. But he didn’t blame Amy. The flowers were a way of apology, for acting like an overprotective idiot the day before, launching himself at the young man Amy had been lunching with, who turned out to be her gay best friend, Peter. In an innocent meal with a friend, Chris had instead seen a guy after only one thing with his little sister and jealousy overcame him.
‘I just wanted to say sorry,’ he said. ‘For spoiling your lunch and acting like a moron and showing myself up like that…’There seems nothing untoward about the scene between these characters, but another read through reveals what is really happening between with character dynamics. One character is overshadowing the other: Chris is overtaking Amy’s scene.
And again, it’s easily done, without writers knowing they’ve done it.The thing to remember is to always have a clear idea of whose POV you’re working with, then stick to it. If secondary characters start to dominate, or the viewpoint shifts, or there is more emphasis on their thoughts and emotions rather than your main character, clearly it’s gone wrong and needs correcting.
Secondary characters are just that. They provide the supporting roles to your main character. That’s not to say they can’t have dominance in their own scenes, because they can, as long as writers keep to the same rule and ensure the emphasis stays with them until the next scene or chapter.This is one of the reasons why editing is so important, because that’s when these kind of errors and imbalances can be corrected.
But most of all, you are telling your main character’s story, so the focus should always be about them.
Next week: How to create scene breaks