June 19th, 2015

How Judgmental Are Your Characters?

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Scales of Justice

In real life, being judgmental might cause a few problems, but in fiction, it’s something every character should aspire to. How characters–especially the point of view characters–judge the world around them shows readers what that world is like and how it works (and even non-genre writers need to world build, it’s just a little different in the details).

Point of view is all about judgment. Our characters see something, they judge it as it pertains to their personal views. If we write a scene where a girl walks a dog down the street, how our characters judge that will determine how we’ll describe it and even how they’ll react to it.

Someone afraid of dogs will see details that support that: large size, straining on a leash to bite them, big teeth. The judgment is “dogs are bad” and the reaction will reflect that.

Someone who loves dogs will see different details: floppy ears, tongue hanging out, straining to greet and lick everyone. The judgment is “dogs are cute” and the reaction will reflect that as well.

Someone who has never seen a dog before will see different details still: human overlord, quadrupedal locomotion device, snack on the go. The judgment is “whatever alien opinion” and we can have great fun reflecting that.

No matter who the character is, alien or human, they’ll see something and judge it. How they see it says a lot of about them and brings a deeper layer to the character. If they don’t care about anything at all, that can be reflected, too.

If all a character does is describe what’s physically there, we miss an opportunity to world build and flesh out that character. We’ll often have to work harder to achieve the same things a few good POV details can accomplish.

For fun, grab a random scene from your current work in progress (or take a few minutes and pretend you’re at a cafe awaiting a contact for some nefarious purpose and write a quick scene about what you see around you).

1. How do you describe the setting?

Are the details all basic and general or does the POV character voice an opinion about them? Can you tell how the POV character feels about the setting by the words used to describe that setting? Do the details evoke any emotions? Opinions?

POV characters describe what matters in a scene, but there’s usually a difference between what matters to them and what matters to the author. If the character has zero interest in interior design, they’re not likely to describe the antique furniture or notice what the drapes are made from. But if they judge the decor in a way that fits their personality, we can show both the room and how they feel about damask.

2. How do you describe the people in the scene?

Can you get a sense of the POV character’s morality in this world/setting by how she describes those around her? Does she give a sense of social structures? Can you tell where the POV character fits on the social ladder?

Humans are social creatures, so we like to know where we stand with others and how we fit in with the herd. How we position ourselves compared to others tells just as much about who we are as who they are. Our first impressions and snap judgments reveal what our beliefs are. As authors, we can show an uptight and sheltered POV character by having her react as such to a person who represents a “bad person” to that personality type. Or we can show a free and welcoming spirit by having her accept someone normally shunned based on appearance alone.

3. What do you learn about the world?

Are there any aspects of the world that suggest the society as a whole? Can you tell how this world works by observing it in this scene? Do any differences from our world appear? How does the POV character feel about them?

There’s a big difference between Soho, New York and Milton, Iowa. How your POV character judges the world around her will show readers what they need to know about that world and the attitudes and views of the people living there. What flies in a gender-fluid big-city neighborhood probably won’t go over the same in a small town in the Bible Belt, and vice versa.

4. What do you learn about the point of view character?

Does he accept the rules of his society? Is he the norm, or does he have outlying views? What kind of person is he? What kind of person does he wish he could be?

We’ve all had a moment in our lives when someone we liked said something that made us look at them in a whole different light. Their judgment about something changed how we saw them as a person.

This works for characters as well, and it’s a great way to flesh out characters and show readers who they are and how they fit into the story. If your POV character is selfish, he might see nothing wrong with a selfish act, and will act selfishly. If he’s generous, he’ll act and think that way.

Letting our characters judge and be judged in our novels helps us show, not tell, and adds layers of interest and complexity to those characters (and our story worlds). They won’t feel two dimensional, but will become textured people and places with virtues and flaws (that often contradict), and we can use those traits to craft more interesting stories.

Think about how your characters judge the world around them. And not just the POV characters–knowing how the other characters feel can help flesh them out as well, and create interesting conflicts when characters have different views on the same situation. The novel feels richer when not every character has the exact same opinion.

How judgmental are your characters? Do you have any examples to share in the comments?


Looking for more? I’m presenting two workshops at the Emerald City Writers’ Conference on October 16-18 at the Westin Hotel in Bellevue, WA (Sponsored by the Greater Seattle Romance Writers of America). Look for my half-day master class on point of view, and my one-hour workshop on show, don’t tell.

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About Janice

Janice Hardy RGB 72Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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Top photo via Pixabay.

17 comments to How Judgmental Are Your Characters?

  • I knew this in theory, Janice, but you know, I just thought that this would be a great way to get to know a character – I’m a pantser, and writing a simple scene like this as practice would tell me a lot about that character!

    Thanks so much!

    • Janice Hardy

      I imagine it would. That’s what I love about POV. It really makes you get inside a character’s head and look around.

  • Insightful post, Janice. I see and hear my characters like a movie as I am writing. I do a lot of first person and also enjoy switching POV in third. But the most fun is a book I have with three women who are alternated in each chapter … each of them in first person so at times I have the delight of seeing things from three perspectives 🙂

    This is another WITS keeper !!

    • Janice Hardy

      Thanks! I love getting different perspectives like that (both as a reader and a writer). You can show so many different sides and let the reader figure out the truth by putting all the pieces together.

  • Holly Robinson

    Love this post, Janice–so useful even for an old fiction workhorse like me! Having your characters’ perspectives & how they judge the world around them made clear is a great way to differentiate them from one another, especially in a novel where you’re writing from multiple points of view.

    • Janice Hardy

      Absolutely. It’s also a great way to be able to split the description work between characters so it’s not all in a lump somewhere.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Great post, Janice! I love judgmental characters. There’s one character in my new WIP who’s turning out to be way more fun than I originally envisioned her.

  • Janice, I’m a huge fan of judgmental characters. Thanks for this post that shows all of us pantsers the way to achieve it “on purpose.” 🙂

  • Susan Kelly

    I’m nervous about making characters too judgmental, as I don’t like highly judgmental people IRL. It’s like they have blinders on, and don’t see what’s there clearly. If I wanted to make a character highly obnoxious, that’s how I’d do it. But I guess that’s just my way of judging: try not to do it. (Although, of course, we all do, all the time.) Thanks for the thoughts, Janice.

    • Janice Hardy

      Judgmental doesn’t have to be negative, and I’m referring more to the other definition of it. It just means to let your characters have opinions about the world around them that reflect who they are and how they feel. Let them judge what they experience, not simply report it.

  • Fae Rowen

    I never thought of my POV characters as being judgmental.
    In my current project, both characters are judgmental of each other from the get-go, which is a real change for me. They come from different worlds, literally, and neither knows anything about the other’s world, so everything seems “wrong” or “stupid.” The whole judgmental notion makes it so much easier to slip into deep POV.
    Thanks, Janice!

    • Janice Hardy

      Everyone judges things based on their own experiences. Your characters sound like perfect examples of that 🙂 They’re going to see things from very different perspectives.

  • I remember this being an epiphany for me, trying to use my character’s viewpoint on everything to enlighten the reader about who she is. It’s really deepened the POV and enriched my writing. Thanks for all those great questions to ask for making our characters properly judgmental.

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