In last week’s post on “The Character Portrait vs. the Character Sketch,” I included a lengthy character portrait of my main character’s nemesis in Thieftaker. Her name is Sephira Pryce, and the portrait touched on many aspects of her appearance, her reputation, her personality. You can read it here. I also made the point that such a long character description needs to be written with a few guidelines in mind. It shouldn’t be used for all characters; it should include more than merely a laundry list of attributes; and most important, it should meet the test of Vernor’s Law — it should accomplish at least two and preferably all three of the following: deepening background, developing character, furthering plot.
In response to the post, I was asked (by Faith, actually) how I might handle shorter descriptions of the same character from the points of view of other characters. As it happens, Thieftaker is written from a single POV — that of my lead character, Ethyn (soon to be Ethan, if my editor has his way) Kaille. But I thought it would be a great exercise to write from the POV of a couple of my other major characters. Hence today’s post.
One thing I noticed while writing these, is that I subscribe to a corollary to Vernor’s Law. It’s not enough for a character description to tell your reader about the character being described. It should also give you insights into the emotions and personality of the POV character, as well as into important plot points. In other words, character descriptions, like any other part of your manuscript, ought to accomplish several things at once.
With that in mind, here are two additional descriptions of Sephira. (You might want to go back and read this one first.)
This first is from the POV of Father Trevor Pell, a young priest who winds up helping Ethyn with his investigation.
Father Pell had never seen Sephira Pryce before, but he had heard much about her. How could he not? Most everyone in Boston spoke of her, and even those who dared not knew her by her fearsome reputation. Seeing her now, Pell thought that she was both more and less than he expected. More beautiful certainly, although in a manner that left the good priest thinking that he ought not look at her if he could help it. And more charming as well. She chatted amiably with the others in the room, occasionally flashing a brilliant smile, and once throwing her head back in a throaty laugh.
But she was also less imposing than he had pictured. She was said to be a skilled, powerful fighter. Yet, she was of medium stature, and womanly in all respects save for her dress, which was rather more masculine than most women of her appearance and age would have favored. She moved with grace, some might have said elegance. Only when she found herself face to face with Ethyn — her features hardening, those arresting blue eyes going ice cold — only then did Pell see the street brawler lurking within the alluring lady.
As with the description I wrote last week, I wanted this one to have the flavor of the historical setting (1760s Boston) and the voice of the character observing her (a young, somewhat naive man of the cloth). I also wanted to capture the essence of Sephira, but in a fraction of the space I took with the character portrait. This description is only 200 words (as opposed to last week’s, which was more than 800). And finally, I wanted to hint at the rivalry between Ethyn and Sephira, because that is a crucial element of the book.
The third description I’ll give you seeks to accomplish the same things, even using some similar wording near the end. This one is from the POV of Ethyn’s lover, Kannice Lester, a young widow and tavern owner.
She sauntered into Kannice’s tavern, her hips swaying provocatively, gems glittering on her fingers, so that she looked more like a half-penny whore than Boston’s most feared thieftaker. Kannice had heard it said time and again that Sephira Pryce was as beautiful as she was deadly. Even Ethyn thought her lovely, albeit a cruel and ruthless enemy. Kannice didn’t see it. The scars on her jaw and cheeks and brow gave her a hard look. Those startling blue eyes were too calculating; the broad smile could not mask entirely the demon lurking within.
This one is by far the shortest of the three — fewer than 100 words — and in many ways it offers the deepest insights into its narrator. Kannice is hostile and jealous. She sees the superficial beauty, but knows all too well what is hidden beneath Sephira’s good looks and fancy jewelry. In all three descriptions we see Sephira using her sexuality as a tool, even a weapon. The reactions are different — Ethyn is intrigued, in spite of himself; Pell is discomfited; Kannice is threatened. In all three we see some recognition that Sephira is not what she seems, that there are layers to her that must be stripped away in order to understand her true nature. Each character focuses on certain attributes, but ultimately the impression given to the reader is pretty consistent.
If I had written this book from multiple POVs, I could have used all three of these passages, albeit in slightly altered forms. I might not have repeated all the details — the eye color, for instance. There’s no need to tell my reader again and again that Sephira’s eyes are blue. But because the passages shed as much light on the POV characters as on Sephira herself, the passages are not too redundant, and in fact are illustrative of important aspects of character relationships. Ethyn’s description of her is the most detailed, the most informative, and therefore would probably be the first one to appear in a multiple POV version of the book. It wouldn’t matter nearly as much which of the other two came next.
When we meet someone new in real life, our perceptions of this person are shaped by who we are, what kind of relationship we might be seeking at the time, what we might have heard about this person in the past (if anything). Put another way, we project our own emotions, needs, opinions, prior knowledge, etc. onto the people we meet. So should our characters. And if we write their perceptions of people with this in mind, our readers can learn much about both characters — the observer and the observed.David B. Coe