As I mentioned in this post several weeks ago, when writing with an intimate point of view (POV), we should avoid describing anything that the focal character would not notice. We are trying to show the world through the eyes of this character, so describing something that he or she isn’t paying attention to wouldn’t be natural. The character doesn’t really “see” it.
In that post, I provided a couple of ways to get around this obstacle with regard to familiar objects, but I neglected to mention ways to describe characters the POV character knows well.
Think about it. When you come upon someone you see every day, how often do you take notice of that person’s eye color, nose shape, hairstyle, etc? If you’re like most people, probably not often, perhaps only when something happens that highlights the feature–the person gets a radical haircut, breaks her nose, or wears glasses for the first time. Then you would be more likely to notice physical features.
In a story, if nothing happens that sparks the POV character’s notice, it would be odd for the data to come through the character’s sensory channels. True intimacy is achieved when you write what the character notices about a person and also avoid writing what the character wouldn’t notice.
So how do you describe a character the POV character sees frequently? By coming up with ways for the POV character to take notice–an unusual way for light to strike the character; problems with clothing, such as stains or rips; misaligned hair; bloodshot eyes; or an altered state of consciousness (perhaps induced by sleepiness, medication, etc.)
In Beyond the Gateway, here is how Phoenix (the POV character) sees Shanghai, his notice sparked by her battle-weary look:
Shanghai stood next to me below my apartment. Early morning sun shone on her from the alley opening. The light revealed rips and bloodstains at the elbows and knees of her Reaper ensemble—forest green pants; black shirt and running shoes; and cloak, its hood pulled back, revealing an oozing gash on her forehead. The damage, along with the surrounding broken beer bottles and other alley trash, made her look like she had been in a bar brawl.
The next time he notices her, his consciousness has been altered by an energy charge, putting him in a euphoric state:
Although dirt marred her Asian features from chin to scalp, and tangles mussed her ebony hair, she radiated beauty from the top of her lovely head, down her athletic, toned body, to her sleek legs. She was the model of feminine perfection.
Describing the POV character can be even more difficult. If the character isn’t aware of any of his or her own appearance changes, no physical descriptions would come through that character’s sensory input.
Many writers use what is sometimes called the “mirror trick,” that is, the character looks in a mirror, giving the writer an opportunity to tell the reader the character’s physical traits. The first problem: unless there is a compelling reason for the character to look at a mirror, experienced readers will recognize this as a trick. In other words, if you want to use the mirror trick, you need a reasonable motivation for the character to check his or her reflection, perhaps to examine a bleeding wound or to try to get a foreign object out of the eye.
The second problem: even when looking at a mirror, a character wouldn’t usually notice the details that he or she has seen thousands of times. In order to report them, you might have to employ some of the same methods I mentioned above–bloodshot eyes, misaligned hair, etc.
Hair wetness can cause a character to notice that her hair is a darker shade of brown than usual. New clothing can have bright colors that cause notice of matching eye color. Exhaustion and thirst can raise awareness of cracked and/or dry lips.
If, however, you are not trying to employ an intimate point of view, you need not be concerned about these issues. Go ahead and say that the character has brown hair, blue eyes, and stands six feet tall. It’s a lot easier. Yet, although intimate point of view is far more difficult, it yields a huge benefit–putting readers inside the skin of the POV character, which results in a more emotionally impactful, intense, and thrilling experience.
I hope this helps. Feel free to ask questions or comment on how you have described characters in a natural way while writing with an intimate point of view.
Categories: Writing Tips