Creative Writing Tip: Point of View and Character Description Go Hand in Hand

From whose eye is your character description coming??? Point of view is a huge factor....

From whose eye is your character description coming??? Point of view is a huge factor….

Welcome, fellow authors! Today, continuing my series on character description, I wanted to discuss point of view and how it affects the picture a reader receives of any given character.

The idea to keep this series of posts going came to me thanks to Michael Eidson, a fellow fantasy writer who commented yesterday on how POV affects description.

Who your narrator is, and what limits you impose on him or her, definitely impacts how he or she describes people. Michael noted:

I think the way an author approaches character descriptions depends on the type of POV used in the story. When writing from an unrestricted omniscient POV, an author can describe just about anything at his or her leisure. Writing from a limited third- or first-person POV and describing something that can’t be viewed by the POV character could be more jarring to the reader.

Reflecting on this observation, I realized I had issues with a description in my current WIP, “The Esclavan Abductions.” I wanted to share it with you and dissect it, showing why I will need to edit it heavily.

Which is fine. It’s only a first draft, after all, and my delete key could use a solid workout 🙂

Anyway, Here’s the description. Narration is third person limited, from the point of view of a sorcerer named Zate; Danby is Zate’s best friend and an old school friend.

Zate hadn’t noticed Danby Lanteen walk in. By the look of things, Danby didn’t notice the common-dressed noblewoman sitting across from the sorcerer.

Danby’s sandy hair wasn’t long, but always looked disheveled. He was a swordsman, and his muscular limbs and broad chest hinted as much. He was handsome enough, Zate supposed, now that he had grown a bit into the nose and ears that had been large enough as a child to draw jokes. His voice held the typical crisp notes of a Podrar native.

THE GOOD

Okay, I’m a big proponent of authors focusing not only on what needs improvement, but also on what we do well. If you can’t pick out what works in your writing– even in scenes you will need to change heavily or even cut– your self-esteem and motivation will dip through the floor.

As bad as it is, there are a few of things I like about the description above, as much as it needs fixing up.

  • I like how the comparison between Danby as a child and Danby now reflects Zate’s lifelong friendship with him. I don’t want to lose that when I edit.
  • I like how Danby’s hobbies/profession (he’s weapons master at a school) realistically impact his build.
  • I like what disheveled hair hints about Danby: he doesn’t worry too much about combing his hair, he has other concerns.

That said, there are LOTS of things that don’t work at all where this description is concerned. And most, if not all, of them are related to point of view.

THE BAD

The point of view, remember, is Zate’s. Here are some trouble spots:

  • While I imagine Danby as somewhat handsome in a goofy kind of way, I seriously doubt his best friend would be considering such things. Zate wouldn’t care about that at any point, really, but especially not when he’s in the middle of a discussion with a noblewoman–one he kind of likes–about having been attacked by three masked men earlier that day. (That’s the setting in which the description falls)
  • Zate knows Danby well. Sees him all the time. He wouldn’t notice that Danby’s hair is disheveled if it’s always that way. He would simply note internally, if anything, that Danby looks how he always does.
  • I could break things up by remarking on Danby’s voice after he speaks his first line (which directly follows) rather than before.
  • As much as I like the “Danby then, Danby now” comparison, I don’t feel this is the moment for it, based on the overall flow of the passage.

POINT OF VIEW TO THE RESCUE

What I think will make things easy for me is that I have two point of characters in my novel: Zate and the princess. The princess ends up meeting and approving of Danby, so a lot of the physical description could come more logically from her.

Of course, that means the readers will have met Danby before getting all the details. I’m fine with that, though. I’ll just need to give people a general concept of who Danby is from Zate’s POV.

Zate mentions Danby’s profession as weapons master during the scene this bad description falls in, so that will go a long way to hinting that Danby is toned and in good physical shape, if nothing else.

I hope this bit of a case study/ example proves helpful in some way…. It always helps me to see a point about writing demonstrated and not just said.

What are your thoughts about POV as it relates to character description? I thought Michael’s assessments were dead on, and I’m glad I had them at the back of my mind when I got to reading my description of Danby!

If you enjoyed this post and didn’t catch yesterday’s–a quickfire guide to character description–you can find it here.
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23 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Point of View and Character Description Go Hand in Hand

  1. I think that’s a really good example, and a spot on analysis of what works and doesn’t in a piece of description. I may be stating the obvious here, but if you want to get across something about Danby’s looks straight away, have you considered using the princess’s reaction to Danby? Zate might not notice Danby’s good looks, but I’m guessing he’d notice the princess giving his friend a a lingering gaze or a long smile or whatever’s appropriate to her, thus getting across to the reader that Danby has the looks to draw such positive responses. Maybe she’s the sort of princess who would comment on someone looking scruffy, or inspire them to try to tidy their hair. It gets information across without changing PoV, and helps break up the description with fragments of action or speech.

    • that’s a good point! I hadn’t thought about that because it’s a different person who is with Zate when Danby walks in…. But even if she doesn’t fall for him she could still react to him 🙂 Thanks, Andrew!!!

  2. Reblogged this on Being an Author and commented:
    It’s important to keep the character Point of View in mind when writing your story. It will make the story more real for the reader.

  3. Oh, I really like this post. It might be one of my favorites, mostly because I catch myself doing a lot of these things.

    I’m in a first draft too, with first person, but I just get the descriptions down because more often than not, I’m getting those descriptions down for my sake. Then, once the draft is finished and things are more firmly established in my mind, I edit to what my character would see.

    I really liked your thoughts on what Zane would observe in his friend, as I sometimes forget that aspect. Would a man call a female’s eyes luminous and brimming with overwrought emotion? Maybe. But that sounds more like a female describing a female to me.

    Great things to think about! Thanks for the morning start, Victoria!

    • Glad you liked your post!!! That’s a great observation about the “luminous” and “brimming emotion.” Guys generally don’t focus on stuff like that the way women do. Easy to forget when you’re a woman writing a male POV character!

  4. I use the unrestricted omniscient view for my opening description paragraph. I think I maintain it after that, but I spend more time on character twitches. Stuff like ‘rolling eyes’, ‘sighing’, ‘rubbing temples’, etc. Are those part of character description since you’re showing the small habits and reactions of the characters?

  5. Hey, Victoria. Love your breakdown of your own description, what’s good about it and how to tackle fixing the not-so-good bits. Love Andrew’s comment too; he is spot on.

    Thanks for the shout out and for posting a link to my site, on which I really need to make a new post. I’ve just been so focused on my WIP, I’ve been ignoring lots of other online social media activities. But I keep coming to your blog! 🙂 It just gives me that daily boost, an injection of inspiration. And it’s not only your insight that attracts me here, but the insight of all your commenters, such as Andrew and Charles and Katie.

    • Oh my gosh, I know, right!!! I get SOOO much inspiration from everyone’s comments…. it’s incredible! 🙂 And I’d say it’s totally fine to put writing before social media to a large extent. Writing comes first. I sometimes do the opposite thing: neglect the writing to keep things going in social media world.

  6. Michael is very astute. And thank you for your assessment of your narration. I’m writing in close third, yet sometimes I slip and include my perspective on the situation, rather than the character’s perspective. For example, I might wax eloquent on the scenery. But if a character is in a state of high tension, he or she would not notice how beautiful the moon is or other aspects I as a writer think the reader needs to know. The character would be high alert, and therefore focused only on what might immediately affect him or her (approaching footsteps; a cliff’s edge, etc.).

    • That’s a GREAT point, L. Marie! I think we all forget to stay with the character from time to time in that kind of narration. It’s tough…. But beta readers and editors can help a lot in that kind of situation, and with experience we get better and better at recognizing when we’re getting off track

  7. I personally dislike omniscient point of view and never use it. However, I know it can be helpful to establish the setting initially when the story is set on an unfamiliar world that would otherwise be difficult for the reader to comprehend. I’d never use it for an entire novel, although I’ve seen it done effectively in a hard science fiction novel.
    With regard to your example, the first thing that struck me is that after telling us that you are writing in Zate’s viewpoint, the first sentence in your example is “Zate hadn’t noticed Danby Lanteen walk in.” For me this requires a follow-up that shows him noticing, such as “Zate hadn’t noticed Danby Lanteen walk in until he took a seat in a spot where Zate had a clear view of him.” That’s just a rough example, of course, but was missing for me was the moment of recognition when Zate does notice him.
    To keep everything in the character’s point of view you tell us what he sees, senses, hears, smells, tastes, thinks, but never what he doesn’t know or hasn’t noticed. This was difficult for me. When I first started writing, I knew nothing about character point of view, but fortunately I had a good teacher who also became a dear friend. She died very suddenly two years ago, but when I’m editing I find myself asking, “What would Diane say about this?” so in a sense she remains my mentor.

  8. Really like your analysis, spot on 🙂 I’m with E. Rose Sabin in that slight moment of disconnect in the first paragraph. Most of that was me not knowing things (like whether Zate was the sorcerer or the common-dressed noblewoman), but I think it Sabin’s suggestion of following on with a ‘…but then he did’ moment would clear up any ambiguity there.

    I’m writing from first person narrator PoV as well, rewriting first draft at the moment. There was a reason – my story is a portal fantasy, so my narrator’s PoV is the way into the world and the way by which I can contrast what she sees with what the natives know and understand. I enjoy the challenge of writing multiple character scenes more than I like the internal dialogue moments, I’ve discovered. It’s closer to the real human experience. We observe how people act and react, tone of voice, posture etc. and we interpret their mood and meaning. I often compare it to how I would observe people if I was stuck in a room full of strangers. What cues would I look for in the people around me?

    • Thanks for your thoughts!!! Appreciate your feedback on my writing and LOVE your analysis of comparing description to observing a room of strangers. Thinking of the cues that would stand out. Brilliant!!! That’s a great approach I plan to use as I edit 🙂

      I prefer multiple character scenes and dialogue to writing description/narration as well. I feel it comes easier for me and I’m better at it.

      • It can help to pick up one of the many body language books out there, but watching actors can also help 🙂 I like Law and Order because there are a lot of intense non-violent interactions and the actors work very hard to convey things like guilt, confusion, suspicion etc. with physical cues. There are a lot of good movies for people-watching too. Observing someone like Dustin Hoffman can be fascinating, as can watching something where one actor plays multiple characters and seeing what they change.

  9. Pingback: Authors: How much description is too much? Too little? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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