That sound you hear is probably my teeth gnashing. As readers we all have our pet peeves. My list may be more expansive than some: typos, clumsy sentences that I get lost in and must reread, and modern slang in a historical setting among them. But the one that really sets my teeth on edge is losing sight of the main character. That happens because the author first lost sight of the MC. If we are truly connected to our MC we are seeing through her eyes, hearing through her ears, etc. The only time we can truly see her is in the mirror. Otherwise, we experience BEING her. We absolutely cannot sit outside the story and write what we believe is going on. We get down in the trenches with the cast of characters, specifically shedding our own identity and imagining ourselves personally facing every challenge the MC faces. We ARE the main character.
As a reader I want to be lost IN a story, not lost because of the story.
If we are a damsel in the 15th Century, we are startled by the ring of the office phone [never mind that we are living through the computer screen; there are some things we just can’t change.]
Think about those senses we depend on to survive: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and you might add “good sense,” i.e. knowing through past experience and instruction what will happen if we behave in certain ways plus the ability to think through the possible consequences of those actions we might consider. All of these are within that single viewpoint.
As readers we want to experience the adventure; that means becoming the main character for the duration of the story. We are both reader and participant in the story. A part of us is alarmed when we realize that she is about to make a mistake that will change her life, yet as participant we walk down that dark hallway with no more than a fingernail file to protect ourselves.
As writers we need to be aware of the common mistakes that take that experience away from the reader. If we leap from head to head, telling why another character did what he did or told what he was thinking we have broken the bond between reader and main character. We have unwittingly divided loyalties. Stay inside your main character’s head, period. It raises the tension, maintains the suspense, and keeps the reader turning the pages.
Another sure-fire way to keep the bond is to begin and end in your main character’s viewpoint [that is inside your main character]. That goes for starting and ending every chapter with the action, inner thought, or dialogue of the main character. Call her by name before you mention anyone else. She is our anchor, our guide. If the reader is lost, she is liable to simply wander away from the story and never return.
We must learn everything about our MC. We must understand how past experiences color our present reactions. And we must do this before we start to write the story. Take some time to get acquainted with your main character—her likes and dislikes and his fears and strengths. Inventing them as you need them in the story makes them sound phony. You have an idea what will happen. You will create a character capable of handling the situation, perhaps badly at first but with the ability to call upon those inner resources to triumph eventually. Make sure those inner resources are there before the story starts.
Sometimes readers who are not professional writers feel disconnected with a story, although they are unaware that it is because the author has violated those simple necessities of viewpoint. We can’t always depend on an editor to catch those things [or I wouldn’t get so irritated with published stories.]
Once you have written your story, reread with an eye to viewpoint. Look at your verbs. Anything that requires the brain to actively interpret something belongs to viewpoint. If your secondary character “saw” someone coming or “heard” a siren, you have just meandered into another viewpoint. How can you fix that? Instead of saying he saw someone coming SHOW it by describing what he does or says:
Reginald shielded his eyes, gazing up the road. “Is that Agnes coming this way?”
When you stay within your main character’s viewpoint you have opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. Your MC is limited by her perceptions and projections when she sees someone else behave in a certain way. She can misinterpret a hasty reply or action, and that can increase tensions and create conflicts.
Some variances are more subtle than others and can slip past us, so we must remain vigilant. We know our MC’s motivations. We can only guess at everyone else’s.
I am reminded of an editor who said she received a manuscript with a cover page that stated “The characters in this story have no resemblance to persons living or dead.”
“That was exactly the problem,” she said.