The Skill List Project: Avoiding Viewpoint Mistakes

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Viewpoint Selectivity. This time, we’ll dig into viewpoint again because I want to talk about something that really makes beginners look amateurish: viewpoint mistakes.

She Brushed Her Fiery Red Hair Out of Her Piercing Green Eyes

Here’s the thing: I almost never think about what color my hair and eyes are. Even when I look into a mirror, that stuff never enters my consciousness; I’ll notice if I need to comb my hair, but I won’t consciously note that my hair is the same color it’s been FOR MY WHOLE FRICKIN’ LIFE [1]. Same thing for my eyes—I’ll notice if they’re significantly bloodshot, but not that they’re the same-old same-old brown.

Yet I can’t count how many times I’ve seen stories by beginners, where the viewpoint characters pointedly mention the color of their hair and eyes, not to mention their “heart-shaped faces”, their “generous mouths”, and their “slightly too big noses”. [2]

I’ll grant that some people probably do take conscious note of exactly how they look, no matter how familiar the details are; some people care a great deal about the face they present to the public. It’s also easy to imagine circumstances where the details leap out at you—if you’ve just started wearing colored contact lenses, you’ll be very conscious of your new eye color whenever you look in a mirror.

But when I see “eyes and hair” passages in writing, they seldom have any in-context excuse. They read as if the writer felt obliged to give a physical picture of the character, so details were shoehorned into the prose without considering what the viewpoint character would actually notice.

The effect is to take readers out of the story. Instead of connecting with the believable thoughts of a particular person, the reader is suddenly presented with thoughts from…where? It’s nothing but an authorial intrusion, and it breaks the spell of the narrative. We can feel the writer forcing stuff into the story, not naturally but from a sense of, “I have to do this—readers will expect it.” What actually happens is that readers get disconnected, even if they don’t consciously realize why. It’s like when a bad stage actor gestures artificially to “indicate” some emotion.

How the Pros Do It

So what’s a good way to describe your viewpoint character? Usually, you don’t have to. In many books, the viewpoint character isn’t directly described at all.

I just pulled three books off my shelf at random and checked the first three pages of each to see if the viewpoint character was described. In two, there wasn’t a single word of description (although there were descriptions of people the viewpoint character met). In the third, there’s one vital detail: “He dug his claws into the snow.” This tells us that the viewpoint character isn’t human…but apart from that, there’s nothing to indicate what kind of creature he is.

On the other hand, all three books reveal plenty of psychological details. They show us how their viewpoint characters think, not how they look. One depicts a scheming politician debating how to manipulate another person. (This mental debate also gives us useful background info about the political situation…but we’ll deal with exposition in some future post.) Another book describes an unfortunate first-mate on a ship, fearful about a storm and several other threats; the character’s fear establishes foreboding and suspense, always good elements at the start of a story. The final book I happened to pick is about the aftermath of a battle, in which a non-human soldier is ritually burying the dead. This establishes the setting (we’re in the middle of a war) and tells us something about the culture of one of the sides.

In all three examples, the authors create approachable viewpoint characters with whom we can connect. We understand what kind of people these are, even if we have no idea what they look like. We see what they care about and what they do to achieve their ends. In other words, we quickly get to know these characters, even if we don’t have a picture of them.

The most important skill related to viewpoint is establishing a connection between the character and the reader. Don’t let unhelpful details get in the way.

In some cases, however, physical qualities are central to a character’s psychological identity—see my own book Expendable. Expendable was written in first-person, so I handled the character’s description in the simplest possible way: the narrator addressed the reader directly and said, “Here’s what I look like.” The same approach is used in almost every first-person story I can think of; if and when it becomes relevant to the action, the narrator says something like, “Now you have to understand I’m a big tough-looking guy…”

In third-person limited stories, the usual solution is equally simple: have your major characters described by lesser characters. “The doorman had heard that Miss Elizabeth was a beauty, but seeing her in the flesh took his breath away. From a distance, the first thing he noticed was her walk…”

In third-person omniscient stories…well, we’ll save that till next time.

For Every Action, There is an Equal and Opposite…

In all cases, don’t neglect the usefulness of in-story reactions from other characters. You can show how your viewpoint character looks by the way other characters react. Almost always, this works better than listing physical details.

Let’s go back to Miss Elizabeth, mentioned above. If it’s important for readers to understand that this woman is gorgeous, don’t waste your time listing “attractive” physical traits. If you say, for example, she’s blonde and curvaceous, not only is that a cringe-inducing cliché, but many readers will have vastly different opinions on what constitutes beauty. The buxom blonde cliché will also bring in cartloads of the readers’ mental baggage: they may decide she’s an airhead, cheap and easy, a gold-digger, etc.

It’s far better to show people simply reacting to her beauty…trying to impress her, gazing at her longingly, making envious remarks, and so on. If you show the reactions without actually giving specific details, readers will develop a mental construct that’s more beautiful (to the readers’ personal tastes) than anything you can actually describe. Even better, you can move the action forward at the same time that you expand our understanding of the character; you don’t have to stop what’s going on while you list the character’s qualities.

The same applies to any character whose physical appearance is significant, whether the person is intimidating, a laughingstock, repugnant, or whatever. If their looks are notable enough to affect what’s going on, then people looking at the characters will have discernible reactions. If a character’s appearance isn’t striking enough to provoke reactions, how important is it to your story?

Characterization is about a character’s entire identity, not just their outward appearance. For many of us, the precise details of how we look don’t play that big a part in who we are. If you had to list the ten most important facts about yourself, would you mention the color of your hair and eyes?[3]

Still Not Done

Am I finished with viewpoint? I’m going to post (at least) one more entry on this topic, discussing something I talked about in Viewpoint and Story Experience: stories where readers may not directly identify with the viewpoint character, but where the character is just so entertaining that you’re willing to listen to whatever he or she says. In the meantime, it’s time for your comments!


[1] Except for that time the director made me dye it when I played John in The Importance of Being Earnest.

[2] Note to anyone looking for a post-grad thesis topic: investigate why beginning writers so often choose a slightly flawed nose to be their protagonist’s obligatory lapse from physical perfection. Why is this a whimsically charming way for a character to avoid being too good to be true? Discuss.

[3] You realize I’m not just talking about hair and eyes, right? I’m talking about any time when a writer lets I ought to mention that overrule what the viewpoint character would consciously observe.

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    This is CANDY! Let me add to the bagage train. The busty blonde isn’t just cliched, it might just be offense. My writer’s group has a member determined to purpetuate every feminine stereotype (air-headed blonds, bimbo reporters, and Asian nerdy girls that are actually firebrands) and then he can’t understand when all the women (and a few of us guys) are hostile in critique.

    One other note, if the hero’s macho scar isn’t germane, (or Tito) to the story, maybe he shouldn’t tell us about it. I find this one much more common than the big honker.

  2. 2. A'Llyn

    I’ve totally done this! And I kind of had the sense that it was awkward at the time, but did it anyway. I blame NaNoWriMo. If I ever rewrite that thing, I’ll do that differently, because this piece really crystalizes why it felt awkward to begin with.

    I love this series!

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    @A’Llyn, I realized how pompous my little anecdote was after I hit submit. Truth be told, I suffered my own lapse three weeks ago and I can’t blame NaNoWriMo.

    Suffice to say my lapse of focus entailed a discriptive involving an ethnic group and height.

    Face, palm, and embarrassed groan, (ideally) followed by recognition and growth beyond cliches.

    Mr. Gardner’s excellent examples and instruction has me reconsidering other passages I’ve written that might not be cliches but could be written better.

  4. 4. Sina'i Enantia

    Hmmmm……. this may be something I need to take a closer look at in my writing, though I seem to go back and forth on it. I’ve had people remind me sometimes when I write a short piece where I’m already familiar with the characters that they aren’t, and have no idea what they look like by the end of the piece. Usually, I try to weave in a physical description as naturally as I can near the beginning of a piece, and then don’t bring it up again (or at least I try not to, unless there’s a reason to notice it).

    Thanks for the article!

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    @Sina’i Enantia, see, I wrestle with this everytime I write. The current fashion takes my beloved Dashiell Hammett to task for being overly discriptive. Meanwhile, I read (and loved) “The Electric Church” but I would’ve loved a little more/some discription of the protagonist. Especially since the antagonists are so richly illustrated.

  6. 6. James Alan Gardner

    I like Hammett, and Chandler, and Dickens, and many others who are sometimes considered “too much” for modern tastes. Their voices are consistent; their viewpoints work, because they come from characters or narrators who find it natural to observe things in extensive detail.

    The real point is to be true to the observer’s character. If your viewpoint character or narrator is a naturally discursive person, then you may end up with descriptions of everything under the sun, and the language may be over-the-top. Have a look at the work of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson or Jonathan Franzen; by some standards, their stuff may be wildly overwritten, but their handling of viewpoint is impeccable. They choose to write from viewpoints which *do* pay attention to familiar and miniscule details.

    What I objected to in my posting were intrusive details that the authors imposed unnaturally on their viewpoint characters. However, if you’re writing through the eyes of an observer who *would* notice tiny details, then you *must* include them. You always have to be true to your characters.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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