Creative Writing Tip: how to characterize secondary characters without head hopping

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This is your character. What do you do when your narrator can’t get into his head?

We authors all know that writing fiction in a third person limited point of view comes with a lot of challenges. Yesterday, someone asked me if I could write specifically about two of them.

  • When your narrator is limited to following one character, how do you stay in that one character’s POV consistently?
  • How do you develop other characters without getting into their heads too?

Fleshing out a Supporting Cast

First off: If this is something you struggle with, I suggest you read or reflect upon the Harry Potter series. It is a fabulous example of efficient characterization with a third person limited POV.

JKR’s books aren’t perfect, but man, does she flesh out characters such as Snape, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore,  McGonagall, and Lupin! And the narrator never gets near their heads. The reader is always with Harry.

This characterization problem also makes me think of my first published novel, because my narrator is always with Kora and stuck knowing only what she knows

I did employ some tricks to develop other characters. And while a couple of bad reviews show that not everyone thinks I did a great job, most reviewers have said they connected with the characters in the novel. Thinking back on how I approached the problem of developing secondary characters:

  • Eavesdropping. Eavesdropping doesn’t have to be intentional, and once or twice in a novel, it can provide a nice way to throw the focus on a secondary character without breaking POV.
  • The awkward spectator. Your protagonist doesn’t always have to be the focus of the action. You can definitely include some scenes where s/he happens to be present when some aspect of life for someone else blows up. This puts that someone in focus. Just one way to employ this next tip:
  • Give a glimpse of a secondary character’s “other life.” Remember your secondary characters will have goals, dreams, and lives separate from their connection with the protagonist. Bring those aspects of their personality into play. Let them create tension and frustration.
  • Make great, great use of dialogue. Don’t underestimate how much dialogue can do to reveal the thought processes, desires, fears, and reservations of your characters. And don’t forget: what someone doesn’t say can reveal just as much as his words. (This post, if you’re interested, is all about characterization through dialogue.)
  • Use gestures, actions, and other physical cues to show what a character is feeling. You don’t have to get in a character’s head to describe her pulling on her hair or biting a nail. Or to note that he’s leaning in with narrowed eyes in an act of intimidation.
  • Your protagonist can ask for help and/or advice. None of us can do it alone. Not only your supporting cast, but your protagonist as well will come out as real, developed people with strengths and weaknesses when they work together and share the load.
  • Consider changing to an omniscient POV. If you’re having issues developing characters other than your protagonist, consider allowing your narrator into their lives too. If a limited POV is too tough, maybe your story is telling you limited isn’t the way you should go. You don’t have to end up changing: but it’s worth the contemplation, right? You don’t have to worry about “head-hopping” (or breaking your limited POV) if you go omniscient.

Head-Hopping

I talk about “head-hopping” at length in Writing for You. It’s one of the topics I specifically wanted to include in the book because I’ve never talked about it on the blog, and I wanted new content in the book for those who follow my blog regularly.

In the POV chapter, I talk about how head-hopping isn’t always a negative thing. People do if effectively all the time when they have an omniscient narrator. The trick is to set the reader up for the change and provide a transition. To go into head-hopping deliberately and with a focus. I go into great detail about how to do that in my upcoming release.

So, have you had issues with head-hopping or developing secondary characters? How did you solve them? How distracting is to you when you read a novel with head-hopping?

If this post was helpful for you, you might want to check out these lists: other posts on point of view and style and posts about characterization.

Also, please considering sharing this post on social media through the buttons below if you think this reflection is of use to your community of followers. Thanks!

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34 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: how to characterize secondary characters without head hopping

  1. I love the phrase “head hopping.”

    • me too! I wish I remembered where I first heard it. I saw it on a couple blogs when I first created mine, and it stuck with me.

      I was familiar with the concept but had never heard it called that. It’s the perfect name for it!

  2. Great post! POV and characterization can be a tricky beast for sure.

    • they can be a nightmare while editing, but the issues are fixable. Even if it means adjusting mid-draft or post-draft what you thought your POV “rules” were going to be.

      The biggest thing is just being consistent throughout your novel, no matter what rules you choose.

  3. Great tips! I find head-hopping very distracting as a reader, but I know a skilled writer can handle omniscient POV and make it work. I can’t add anything here; I tend to use exactly the tricks you’ve described, particularly physical gestures, tone of voice, etc. to make secondary characters seem like their own people.

    • nonverbal cues are so important! we use them, and pick on them, all the time in real life. It just makes sense to apply that to characters.

      One of the best ways to “show, not tell,” as the saying goes.

  4. I think I do a lot of head hopping only because I have multiple leads. It does make me wonder how common that is. Most books have that central hero that you see the world through. I like that eavesdropping suggestion. Need to use that more often.

    • I have read LOTS of fantasy that switch the focus of narration from chapter to chapter. One of my favs is the Riyria Revelations by Michael J Sullivan.

      Switching in the middle of chapters is less common, but I sometimes do it. As long as it’s set up and done deliberately, it’s not something that bugs me as a reader, so I’ll do it from time to time as a writer.

      • I go for the third person omniscient, so I switch in the chapter a few times. I try to retain the focus of a central character, but when have a dialogue between your 6-7 main characters, it’s really hard.

  5. That was a great list of ideas. It’s woken up the writing side of my brain. I’m definitely going to have to look them over and put them into action in my story, as I’ve been wondering about this fora while. Thanks Victoria!

    • I’m glad the post was timely, Katie! This really seems to be resonating with people…. I might need to edit this post into my handbook. At some point, though, that’s going to have to stop, haha!

  6. I’ve never really seen an issue with head hopping. It was necessary in my first novel because I essentially have two main characters.I even did a couple of paragraphs in first person towards the end for another character. It felt right.

    • Thank you for this comment. You are so right. It can be the right choice, because it can be done well, or even artistically. It depends of the text and the author. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing.

      People like to say “never head hop” but that’s wrong. And too limiting. If you know what you’re doing and you do it right, there’s no problem with it.

  7. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: how to characterize secondary characters without head hopping | Library of Erana

  8. Another excellent post! Head hopping is very distracting as a reader and I work really hard not to to do it in my writing. You can also give the POV character’s interpretation of the secondary character’s actions, e.g., “When he spoke it was as if the words forced themselves from his lips without his volition.”

  9. Hi Victoria, great article. Do you mind if I submit it for my writer’s group newsletter? You’ll get full credit, please a link to your site included.

  10. I meant “plus a link to your site” 🙂

  11. Thanks for the article, this will definitely help!

  12. Pingback: Creative Writing and Consistency: Embrace a Style that Breaks the “Rules” | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. In real life, we can’t head hop. We are forced to characterize other people in our lives by what we observe and hear about them. We don’t always characterize other people correctly on first meeting them, but come to know them better over time. Readers understand this because they live it. So they’ll accept that getting to know secondary characters can take longer than getting to know the main character. In fact, gradually learning what makes secondary characters act the way they do can be a big part of the thrill of reading.

    In my writing I tend to avoid head hopping. But there are plenty of great stories that liberally employ the technique. When done well, head hopping can help the author tell a story in a more entertaining way than could be told with a strictly one-headed POV. It really depends on the story being told. Thanks for the post, Victoria.

    • oh my gosh, what a great point comparing not head hopping to real life. I had never thought of it quite that way before, but it’s true. We only know about others what we see and hear of/about/from them.

      Maybe, psychologically, that’s part of the reason bad head hopping bugs so many readers. It feels like a cheat, in addition to being jolting and confusing. That’s definitely a new perspective to consider the problem from. Makes me reconsider some of the narrative choices I’ve made in the past and how I might want to structure future books.

  14. Thank you for this article, very useful! It made me realize that I was using a little bit of head-hopping in the book I’m working on. Do you think it’s acceptable to do it if the scene goes back in time where my character is way too young to have it from her POV?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! Head-hopping in that instance does make sense to me, Audrey, for sure. Especially if there is a clean break, which is always implied in a flashback, between the present moment and the flashback from a different POV. I don’t think that scenario would confuse or frustrate me as a reader at all.

  15. Thank you for the quick answer, Victoria (you have such a pretty name)! And yes, there is a clean break, namely it’s in a whole new chapter. And it’s not very distinctively a head-hop, but there are things stated in general that my main character would not know about him, due to her young age.
    It makes me think how people say that writing is so easy but it’s not, there are much more to it if you take it seriously.

    • yes, there is so much to it. it’s kind of overwhelming when you stop to think about it.

      If you are worried about the POV in that flashback, its’ something you can ask your beta readers about. Did they notice? was it distracting? Can they think of any suggestions to make it better, if so? That might help you feel a bit better.

      I love my name too! My parents picked a nice one 🙂 I love Audrey, though…. Makes me think of Audrey Hepburn. I admire her so much!

  16. Good advice, Victoria, thank you! Once I get to the stage where I have beta readers, I will sure do that to see how they react. Hopefully soon!

    Thank you for your response again!

  17. I find the ‘other life’ especially relevant. If a character has no life outside of their relationship to the protagonist then the author has to get to know them better.

  18. Great post! You’ll get no argument from me how awesome J K Rowling was at characterization in her HP novels. Where she really shined was the clever techniques she used to deal with POV challenges. The Pensieve, Owl Post, and the talking portraits were just a few of the devices she used to let the reader know things happening in another time or place. (Part of why I love writing fantasy & scifi — the possibilities are endless!)

    I would be careful about switching to omniscient POV. My experience has been that switching to any other POV when you’re too far into the story can introduce a lot of plot and style inconsistencies. It starts this domino effect that can really get you pulling your hair out! And you have to be more on your guard when using omniscient, as it’s very easy to rely on it too much and end up distancing the reader from the characters. But it’s a valid consideration, especially for those big, epic-style novels.

    • Love your observations here about Rowling and POV…. She always blows me away with how innovative she is. Like you said, that’s all the fun of fantasty/sci-fi. 🙂

      I think your considerations/ hesitancy concerning an omniscient POV are great as well, and well-founded. Those are all dangers of using that kind of POV…. omniscience becomes easy to lose track of, abuse, and to go to as a quick and easy solution for a problem that can be solved in a much cooler way…. like through a pensieve 🙂

  19. Pingback: The “Come, Cliche, Crackdown” Approach to Character Development | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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