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.
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)