Ask an ex-con and he'll say he can always identify two kinds of people on the street: undercover cops and men who've done hard time. A skateboarder can look at your sneakers and tell whether you skate, which foot you lead with, what tricks you can do. Master chess players can survey the board and divine how many moves it will take to win, and in what order. Ford Escort drivers always notice other Escorts on the road.
These examples define a character's point-of-view, and point-of-view is defined by obsession. Most emerging writers can grasp the basics of point-of-view with relative ease and swiftness, and once they learn the basics, they rarely violate them. The question, though, isn't simply who's telling or seeing the story, but rather how are the events and details being seen, told, described or ignored or reconciled? What do a narrator's choices betray about the narrator's head and heart, history and preoccupations, fears and desires? The trick to inhabiting a POV character's consciousness more persuasively is to understand the character's obsession. What can the character not not see?
Here's something people say in Texas: To a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. When I discuss point-of-view with my students, I tend to trot out this logic and it seems to resonate. Even if what the hammer sees is a screw or bolt or window, it still looks like nail. Maybe it's truer to say that whatever the hammer sees becomes a nail. If a character is predisposed to see the world in a certain way, then regardless of what material the world offers, the character will view the material through her particular lens, one that is both obscured and clear, both true and false. The window that a hammer sees is still a window, but it's also a nail now that the hammer is paying such close attention. Think of those times when you've been heartbroken. Think of how almost every song on the radio brings tears to your eyes. Think of how even the happiest of songs devastate you. To the brokenhearted, every couple looks happy. To the brokenhearted, the whole world looks like the ex-lover.
When I was writing my novel Remember Me Like This, a book that follows a family whose son has disappeared years before, I knew that everything the characters engaged would recall or suggest the missing boy, the misery that defined their lives. What I didn't know was how different and revelatory their perspectives would be. Yes, they had all lost the same person, but while one character was haunted and punished by what she saw, another was angered and steeled by it. Another was sullied. Another was given to self-destruction. Every detail required a deeper level of empathy. How would a dry cleaner view her missing son's unwashed clothes? How would his younger brother view their parents? How would his father, a history teacher, process a future where he only had to pay for one child's college tuition despite having saved for two? In fiction, every detail is a Rorschach test.
And every detail confirms the POV character's conscious and subconscious priorities. Our brains run on about 12 watts of power, which isn't much at all, so to conserve energy, they've evolved to only process one thing at a time. Through a totally interesting concept called "inattentional blindness," we filter out nonessential information while amplifying and concentrating on the stimuli that seems most crucial. This is point-of-view in its purest form. What is most important to our characters will mandate that they focus their attentions on X to the exclusion of Y. The stimuli that capture our characters' attentions define their priorities, and those priorities reveal what our characters love and loathe, what our characters know and need. Find out what your characters notice, find out where their gazes linger and why, and you'll find out who your characters are.
Here's an exercise that might help: Take a pen and paper and move through your surroundings for the next ten minutes making a list of everything you see that's green. If it's green, write it down. That's it. Go.
Welcome back. What did you notice? Were there things you saw that you haven't noticed in a long time (or ever), but now seem undeniable? Can you already imagine how you'll pay attention to those green drapes and shoelaces for weeks to come? Do you remember the afternoon when you bought the spool of green thread? This is the nuance and power of point-of-view. I've focused your attention on green, awoken in you a desire to find it, and for ten minutes it became your obsession. You saw what you hadn't seen before, and you saw what you see every day in a new light. You were relatively blind to every other color in the spectrum; your brain made green its priority and, as such, devoted much of its energy toward what you deemed most important. Now do the same thing for your characters. Find out what their "green" is. Find out the color of their world, and understand that the color is their world. Find out not just what they look at, but what they ultimately see.