24 May 2010

POV and Character Description

by Linda Yezak

The current trend of writing in deep third-person point of view can pose a challenge for some writers–the same challenge first-person POV writers face: How to describe the main character to give the reader some image to latch onto. The usual techniques of having the character stare in the mirror or flip through a closet, although effective, are old, worn out and limited. As competitive as the market is these days, freshness in every aspect of writing is mandatory, and this includes character description.

Writers of genres in which distant third person or even omniscient POV are acceptable, such as in thrillers and action/adventure novels, don’t face the same problems. They can choose not to describe the character at all or to describe the character totally, with as much detail as the writer desires.

Deep POV doesn’t allow for this, however. A writer who describes her character as “flipping her fabulously long, luxurious blonde hair over her bare, silky shoulder” is likely to get her hands slapped. When the character is flipping her hair, the last thing on her mind is it’s length, color and position over her shoulder. She’s more likely thinking: “That man is a honey! How can I get him to notice me?” or "I simply must stop putting off my haircut!"

After all, that’s what deep POV is all about: Climbing into the character’s mind and relating her story through her own eyes. We need to use every tool in our writer’s shed to provide an image without shattering the illusion that the reader is living in the character’s head.

I’m a fan of minimalism. Provide me with a detail or two, and my mind will fill in the blanks. Of all the things a writer can describe about his character, the physical details are the least important. Just as there is so much more to who we are than our finely arched brows, there should be much more to who our characters are, too.

There are a multitude of ways to present character description. Here are just a couple of examples:


Marcy's firm hands on her shoulders held Clarice at arm’s length. “That dress is so . . . not you! I love it!”

Clarice fingered the unfamiliar slinky fabric, feeling both self-conscious and wickedly delicious after decades of rough cotton. “You don’t think it’s too much?”

“He’ll love it." Marcy's nose wrinkled. "Now, for that hair.”

Her hand flew to her hair, stiff and itchy after Alice had shellacked it with what seemed to be three cans of spray. “Alice swore it’s the most popular style.”

“Yeah, for the fifties. And what did she call that color? Faux-Monroe?”

Gives you an interesting picture of Clarice, doesn’t it? In the dialogue, I showed that she is an older woman in a sexy dress with stiff, old fashioned Marilyn Monroe-blonde hair. But I showed you more about her than just a pointed-nose, squared-chin physical description. I showed you that she lacks confidence, that she's stepping into a new adventure, that she's both excited and nervous about the undertaking. This tells you more of who she is--and that's what you want your readers to know. Allow them to come to their own conclusions about her nose and chin; give them a reason to care about her.

Unfortunate Event:

She wasn’t sure which she’d heard first, the crash of thunder or the gravel kicking the back fender of her husband's old truck as he drove toward the house. Either way, if she left her laundry on the line during the rain, he’d string her up like the catfish heads along the fence. She flew barefooted through the unpainted screen door at the back of the house and tripped over the porch plank he never got around to fixing, sailing head-first down the steps. The pain was dizzying. Her tongue explored the hole her left canine tooth once filled.

This woman is a poor Southerner who is afraid of her husband, and who now has a tooth missing. More details can be added as the first chapter moves along, but for now, everyone has an idea of her appearance because everyone carries an image of what a poor Southern woman looks like, either through experience, movies or art. What they don't know is how she'll respond to losing a tooth, to her husband's call and the stomp of his boots across their hardwood floor. Once the writer answers that, the reader's image of the character is enhanced.

While you read some of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they put character images into your head. The best writers are the ones who don’t assume their readers are so lacking in imagination that detailed description is necessary to paint the picture. They give hints and believe their readers to be bright enough to catch them.

(Linda Yezak, a member of AuthorNation, is a cohost of AuthorCulture and an editor for Port Yonder Press)


  1. SO many good points here! Thanks for this!

  2. This has been the balancing act I've undertaken in my writing recently. I can't quite say if I've managed, but this information helps.

    Yet, at the same time, I'm a very aesthetically concerned person and I do love the detailed descriptions, but I think I am out numbered by people who don't. Even when you use detailed description, you still need to hint at things rather than spell everything out, because we seem to enjoy the "imagination prompt" when reading.

  3. Thanks for your comments, you two.

    Carrie: There are many ways to describe the characters in your novel if you want to be more detailed. The primary thing to consider is the POV. The deeper under your character's skin you are, the more innovative you should be when describing him/her.

  4. I write in deep POV and totally agree with this post. Often, it's not until another POV character shows up that we really "see" them. If you're writing single person POV, then it's a lot harder. But pulling back to either omniscient or a distant POV for description's sake will pull me out of the story every time.

  5. Clear and to the point advice. Great stuff.

  6. Absolutely, Terry. I believe that for general description, too--not just character description. Sometimes we have to step out and describe the setting, but most of the time, we can weave the description in and not interrupt our character's flow.

    Gaby: Thanks, glad you like it!

  7. So, with my main character right now-it's my first book-how do I tell when I'm deep in POV or my character is just undeveloped?

  8. Deep POV is essential in creating an intimacy between the characters and the reader. As a fairly new writer I know that it can be quite hard to achieve. I find that I really have to be immersed in the character and feel like I am literally standing in their shoes while I am writing in order to pull it off.

    As a reader, when I am reading a 1st person POV novel, I don't care so much what the character looks like. I care about how they see themselves, and how they portray themselves. For example, if an author merely tells me a character is short, I couldn't care less, but if they have to stand on a chair to get something out of a cupboard it not only becomes a point of interest but it shows me more about them and creates a stronger image in my mind.

    Fantastic post.

  9. The third person POV is essential for me in achieving reader intimacy with the main character. The reader must see and feel through the main character whether it is in setting or in dialogue. Yes, a minimalistic approach is recommended to broaden the number of readers who are able to relate to the character. Great point. As to how the main character is described, no mirror is necessary if we read his/her thoughts, reactions to life events, choice of everything from clothing to favorite music. Age and facial features are easily introduced through dialogue as the true 'mirror' is in the guise of secondary character responses and other innovative vehicles. Yes, settings and characters can be made more detailed as long as the theme of universality is maintained to maintain the empathetic bond of a maximum number of readers.

  10. @Anonymous: I think those are two entirely different points. You can be presenting your story from inside your character's skin, but still have an underdeveloped character. As a seat-of-the-pants writer, I often face that. I learn about my character as I go, then after I've written a few chapters, I take what I've learned about him and compile a character sheet fleshing him out more. (Outliners do that before they start writing--I'm just a bit backward ;) ).

    @WritersBlockNZ--I so agree about being immersed in the character to write a deep POV. I know of one author who dresses like his character as he writes (he writes westerns). Others, including myself, surround ourselves with music and images that keeps us in character and in the scene.

    @Vasilios--Absolutely. So much about the character can be determined through his choices and reactions. Physical particulars can be described through other means. I once received a critique of my work that said, "That doesn't sound like something she would say." The comment indicated that I'd succeeded in bringing my character to life in a real and intimate way.

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  11. That's how I develop my characters, too. I find out about them as I write and then when I edit, I broaden their characteristics in the beginning before I was really certain who they'd be.

    I suppose I enjoy that process, because it also feels how you come to understand new friends in life. You learn about them as you get to know them. When you reflect back on earlier experiences, you see their traits more clearly than you did at the time.

    However, I envy the very organized. I write my character sheets when the writing at the end and then use them to create consistency.

  12. That's a great thought, that characters reveal themselves as friends would. I find that to be true. But I, too, envy the organized. I doubt they have to go back and tweak their characters as often as I do!