Being a Better Writer: Keeping Description in Character

Welcome once again, writers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer. Alas, this is not “fresh” in the sense that it was written by my hand on this day, but once more from the past. I’m currently out of the office, and this post was prepared in advance. Which means there’s no real news but what was from several weeks ago.

Okay, well, there is a chance that I’ll be back next week, according to the schedule I’ve gotten my hands on. I hope that holds up, because I really want to be working on Axtara – Magic and Mayhem.

Anyway, that’s literally all there is news-wise: Just me hoping I’m back. So without further beating around the bush, let’s just dive into today’s topic!

Okay, I realize some of you might look at this and sort of go “Huh?” a little. But I think if we polled those making that response, we’d find two very different causes.

One would be, of course, people who saw the title and nodded, going “Yeah, that makes sense. I guess we’re talking about this today.” But the other half? They’d be the people who saw this title and went “What? What does that mean?”

This post has its roots in that sort of response. Long ago, when I was working on my third book (which actually released as my fourth, and was the fantastically received Sci-Fi adventure Colony, you should go read it) I was “quizzed” by someone who, for whatever reason, wanted me to “prove” that I was an author in an IRL (in real life) conversation. They waved their hand at the surroundings around us and declared ‘Well, prove it and describe this scene around us!’

Yeah, people really do this. People are weird. Anyway, I retorted with “As who?”

This question baffled them. Their response, which I don’t recall word for word, was ‘That doesn’t matter, a description is just a description! Just describe the scene!’

To which I tried to explain that depending on who was looking at said scene, the description would be different, as each person/character would notice and fixate on different things. To which this interrogator grew upset, arguing that this ‘made no sense’ and that it should just be a description of the scene, like what they personally saw, and I obviously was not an author and didn’t know what I was talking about. Offering several descriptions of the scene from the viewpoint of different characters just made them more unhappy, as they argued that each character was “wrong” for thinking of things a certain way or noticing/not paying attention to certain aspects of our surroundings.

It was … a frustrating experience, certainly. But at the same time, it was enlightening. To some, there is simply the viewpoint that their view is all there is and will ever be, and other viewpoints are just “wrong.”

Do I disagree with that? Most certainly. However, I have also read books for which this sort of viewpoint seems to hold true, books in which each character’s view of the world is identical to another. And I don’t mean “view of the world” in a sense of opinions or stances on ruling powers or ethics. I mean “view of the world” as in what they physically see. How they take in the setting around them, and what they will notice and act on first.

I’ve read books where if you took any moment of scenery and put it up against another from another character, there would be no way to tell one from the other. Not because the book used a narrator that had a voice of their own, but because the character’s viewpoints and personality were not reflected in the way they observed the world around them.

And that … I think that’s a misstep. So hit the jump, and let’s talk about how we can avoid making the same mistake.

Okay, before we dive into details, I do want to expound on something noted above: Point of View and narration matter with this. For example, a first-person view? Everything is going to be through the lens of a character’s eyes, but unless you switch to another first-person viewpoint, your story will only ever be from that character’s view, which means once you get into the groove, it’ll carry itself.

Third-person limited or omniscient, however, gets trickier. With third-person limited, you’re attached to a certain character’s “window” (like a third person camera) for the duration. Which means that when they look at a scene or a location and observe it, what they observe—and what is therefore given to the reader—should come with their own view and flavor. Why I say this gets tricky is because you may have several characters that each see the world in their own way, and even if they’re separated by chapter headings, you’ll need to keep things straight. More than once working on the UNSEC Space Trilogy, for example, I caught myself writing a description of a scene from the character view of the chapter I’d just finished, and had to rewrite it.

Omniscient third-person, however, is a whole bag of tricks on its own, because you’re head hopping whenever you feel like it. I’m reading a few books right now in a series that all adopt Omniscient third-person, and that means that every observation or description is given in the context of the character the author wants most to give it. Meaning that the chapter might be following one character, but as they walk into a room leap into the head of another character to gather their observations on it, ignoring the observation of the character the chapter is following, only to jump back to rest behind them once more in the very next paragraph.

Confusing? Well, not if written properly. And that’s the lot that falls to us: Tracking who we’re locked in the view of, and applying their viewpoint appropriately.

So then, how do we do this? Well, to start with, we need to know our characters, and know them well. Because in order to see the world through their eyes, and properly present this, we need to know them well enough that we can write what they would see first, second, third, and so on and so forth.

See, contrary to the closed views of the interrogator I was subjected to above, everyone sees the world in their own way, even if its the exact same scene. We’ve written posts on this before, so much so that actually trying to find a specific one with various examples ended up with me buried in a mountain of search results just from this site. So I won’t repeat myself, and assume that if you’re looking for those posts, you’ll be able to readily find them. But the gist of each of them is that our situation and who we are impact what we see and look for in a room first. Take four people and show them a room, and then record what they observer first, second, and third about that room, and you’ll get different answers. You may get overlap, but what one person notices first may be what someone else notices last.

Knowing your character matters. If someone is a fashionista and places great value in clothing, for example, they’ll likely notice and observe the fashion and dress of a character they’re being introduced to first, then extrapolate from there. A character who’s an investigative reporter, however, might pretend to be focused on the face while taking in everything that looks unique or defining in the room, as well as anything out of place. A musician may just deliver a fairly standard observation … unless they see something related to their interest or hobby. A character fleeing an axe murderer will definitely notice any form of escape in a room first … and I think you get the idea.

Point is, understand your character, as well as their situation, well enough that you can represent them when they look at a room. Or a person. Or a scene. Know what they’ll look to first, or second, or third. In addition, know how they would see it. Because when we write out what they see, we should not simply be describing things.

Don’t get me wrong. we are, but we also aren’t. Because we need the voice of our description to be in-line with our character. For example, in Gym Djinni, the protagonist was an art major who now works at a museum, and adores history. Hence when he sees something that is beautiful, his comparisons are to famous works of sculpture, which was his preferred focus. He doesn’t just note that a room he enters has expensive stone columns for effect, but notes that they are a specific style of Grecian column.

Who are characters are doesn’t just determine what they see, but the words they use to describe it. The mannerisms of their speaking. The colloquialisms they’ll use, which won’t just exist in their spoken word, but often in their head as well, their “monologue” of observation which you are putting words to suited to who they are.

Done well, your readers should usually be able to tell whose perspective they’re following even without an obvious tag. If your readers can do that, you’ve succeeding in strong fashion.

Doing so provides immediate benefits as well. For starters, it makes your characters feel more real and realized because readers will see their views and depth emerge. They will feel like people who exist rather than actors on a stage we know to be filling a role. In addition it will make the world feel more immediate as well. There’s a difference between a flat description of something, and a personal observation that makes specific details pop. And lastly, if a reader can read a description and know which character gave it, that is a strong show of personal recognition and connection with the work.

Okay, with all this said, how can we learn to do this. It’s one thing to to lay out an aim or an objective. But how can we put it into practice?

Well, as with most things in writing, we have to make a conscious effort. If you want your description to be more in tune with a character, work on it! Look at your character: Who they are, where they’ve come from, and what they value. How do they respond when prodded? What colors are their eyes drawn to? What about their past would influence how they see the world? With those questions in mind, don’t just describe a room, but think about what about the room they’ll notice and fix on first.

It takes practice. And reinforcement. But the result is a narrative that pops off of the page and deepens the reality of everything about your story. So I would argue that it’s definitely worth it.

Now, you may trip up from time to time. As noted above, it can be easy to “fall” out of one character’s head and into another sometimes. Or forget, if we’re not in the habit.

Also, never forget that we ultimately want to move the story forward. We can forgo a character’s first focus or gloss over it if we need them to see something vitally important. That said, we can also get a bit of humor out of a character that has a hobby noticing elements of it while running for a getaway vehicle to avoid impending doom and then mentally chiding themselves on actually being so into their hobby that they noticed it over escape from certain death. When to focus on what moves things forward over letting the character be the character is up to you. Practice will make perfect.

So, there we—wait, I have one last note to make. In addition to everything above, from knowing our viewpoint to understanding our character to representing that understanding in our description of scene, place, or character … Don’t forget that a narrator is a character as well.

That’s right, if you’re framing your story as narrated by someone else, that should most definitely frame everything. Even “others” viewpoints, as they will all be through the voice of that narrator. Even if we never see them, speak to them, or learn about them directly, the voice of a narrator should “color” our entire work.

Anyway, that’s it. Hopefully I’m back in the office soon. For now, though …

Good luck. Now get writing!

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