The Observer and the Observed: Character Descriptions Revisited


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

24 comments to The Observer and the Observed: Character Descriptions Revisited

  • Love your point about revealing POV character through description of another. I’m always fascinated by teh idea that a character is only revealed in impressionistic brush strokes, that what he or she is really like can only be guessed at by putting together the various sketches produced by others. In a sense this is always true, but I love books which are conscious of it, whose sketches are shaped by the persepective of the POV character, and exploit the slippage between impression and fact. Maybe Empson was right: fruitful ambiguity is all!

  • Thanks for the comment, A.J. It’s been a bit quiet today — the problem with posting Mondays is I get all the national holidays….

    This shifting perspective of which you write, the accumulated impression created by the independent observations of multiple POV characters is the one thing I miss most now that I’m writing single POV. I think it’s one of the reasons I have started using the kind of lengthy character portrait I discussed in my past post. I used that technique far less in previous work because I was writing from many POVs and so could layer my descriptions and convey what I needed to. With only one narrator I’ve had to change tactics. I like the challenge of writing this way — I think I’ve had to become more nuanced in my writing because of it. But at times I miss the convenience of multiple pairs of eyes through which to view the world.

  • Yes, I see what you mean (I’m responding at more length than usual since it is, as you say, quiet today). I feel something similar writing in first person. I find myself wanting to make the reader a little unsure soemtimes of whether they are getting the truth of the story, or whether it’s so heavily inflected by the speaker’s voice that you aren’t always egtting the whole story, even if he isn’t actually lying. Oddly enough, I find myself going back to literary classics where the narrator is strongly foregrounded: heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, Portrait of the Artist. So much of those books comes from a slippery quality about narrative that I find really engaging and intriguing. Of course, we proles in genre fiction are on a tighter leash than Joyce and Conrad were, so we’re doubly constrained to keep story uppermost. I guess ambiguity will only get us so far…

  • I believe that clever and careful use of what I like to call the Unreliable Narrator is one of the most effective literary tools any writer has. Talk about developing character through POV! It’s a wonderful way for readers to become engaged in the narrative even as they’re still getting to know the characters. Again, though, this is far easier to do with multiple POV. Those classics you mention, told through the eyes of a single, flawed narrator, are worthy of admiration precisely because what they do is so difficult. We are on a tighter leash in our genre, but I also believe that I’m not yet skilled enough in my craft to emulate their narrative achievements. Something I can strive to master eventually, I suppose….

  • Agreed. Unreliable narrators are a real balancing act, aren’t they? Writers of literary fiction are given more license on this issue (not that I’m bitter…) in part because they work in a “genre” (it’s not, but that’s another post) where form is assumed to be as important as content. Conrad’s editor never asked him why no one was dead by page ten. For me, that balance between clear narrative content and subtle, shifting formal components (including an unreliable narrator who doens’t completely shut down the story) is somethign to aspire for.

  • Actually, just to play the part of Devil’s advocate for a moment, I think that the limits placed upon us are less onerous in spec fic than in most other genres. Yes, we need to kill off a few people and throw in some magic to keep things moving along. But beyond that, I feel that we are in a position to play more with form than many who write in more formulaic fields. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that as long as I’m writing something that works on a narrative level, I can range a little. That I don’t do more of this is as much a function of what I believe I can pull off given my creative ability as it is attributable to any outside force keeping me from trying.

  • David, this is by far the BEST post you have put up this year! The examples show what works, and hints at what dosen’t. They give a clear and strong view of all the characters involved. Excellent work! Now to tell my FB fans and the Betas about it!
    And Happy Holiday!

  • That’s a fair point. I’m thinking as much as a mystery/thriller writer as a fantasy writer and the former is a more restricted genre than fantasy. Still, as with the recent cover art debates we’ve had, publishers certainly assume that fantasy readers want something fairly specific and consistent. How accurate that is as an assessment, I couldn’t say.

  • Thanks, Faith. It was a fun post to write. I had never written from the POV of either character before and I enjoyed playing with those voices. And happy 4th to you, too.

    A.J., as I said, I could be wrong in what I’m saying. I think there’s some freedom in fantasy, but you’re right: Publishers and editors still do exert some control in the name of “the market.” Anyway, I’ve enjoyed our little colloquy.

  • Yes, you boys are so cute together.

  • Interesting post and comment-conversation. I think the unreliable narrator is more difficult to pull off in genre because of reader expectations (in addition to its obvious difficulties as a writer). There aren’t a lot of unreliable narrators in genre, so our readers aren’t used to questioning the information they are getting. Literary readers have no trouble and will quickly pick up on the cues that they shouldn’t trust what they are reading. Conversely, genre readers have little problem being plunked into the middle of a bizarre world with bizarre terms and bizarre references and figuring out the rules (which might even include time and gravity, not to mention magic) as they go. Most literary readers would be absolutely lost. It’s all a matter of perspective.

  • I think you’re right to a point, Stuart, but I also think that we get ourselves in trouble as artists when we underestimate our audience. I think that our readers would do better with formal innovation than some publishers might expect. And I think that with novels like The Road and The Time Traveler’s Wife, mainstream readers have shown themselves to be far more willing to suspend disbelief than mainstream writers might readily admit to the likes of you and me.

  • (sticking my toes, again, into the all male chorus here)

    *Many* of my mystery / thriller readers have asked, “Why are you writing that stuff / crap / weird stuff / Harry Potter vampire stuff … and (one most memorable term) awful stuff?

    While some non-fantasy readers are willing to read spec fic, I find that most are not willing to cross over too deeply into urban fantasy or fantasy. Which is why I changed my name to write it. I didn’t want to shock my M/T readers, and I didn’t want to dilute the genre sales of one name with the genre sales of another.

    Here’s to a life of schizoid success.

  • Mikaela

    Thank you for an excellent post, David. Again ( How do you manage?!). I have to say that I agree with your editor, on the character’s name. I think I mentally changed it to Ethan when I read your post last week….

  • Faith, it’s absolutely true that some readers just can’t make the jump from one genre to another. As you say, it’s a schizoid life and a very, very strange business.

    Mikaela, thank you. I’m glad you liked the post. And thanks as well for the feedback on the character name. I originally wrote the book as an alternate world fantasy and then changed it to a historical. The original spelling is an artifact of that older version. My editor is no doubt right to want me to change it. But this is a character I’ve lived with as Ethyn for a long time. It almost feels like changing the spelling of one of my kids’ names. I need to adjust….

  • Wow, that’s pretty cool. Even before you took the descriptions apart, that’s exactly how I reacted. Thanks, as usual!

    I have to agree with Mikaela: stick with Ethan. Ethyn is a gorgeous name for an alternate world, but the moment I learn that a story is set in a certain time period and geographic region, I want something that sounds like it’s from there. Ethan I can see as being a contemporary name for 1760s Boston, but Ethyn would make me wonder if he’s a newcomer to Earth. I actually had the same reaction with Kannice. Sephira … well, her name fits her character. Especially if it turns out that she styled herself that way.

  • Faith said, While some non-fantasy readers are willing to read spec fic, I find that most are not willing to cross over too deeply into urban fantasy or fantasy.

    What’s entertaining to me is watching what happens when non-fantasy readers finally do take the risk and read something spec. When “Mad Kestrel” came out, many of my mother’s friends, normally readers of mystery or romance only, picked up the book because they knew my mama. And then were genuinely surprised that they liked fantasy!

  • Thanks, Moira. Nice to know that the descriptions worked the way they were supposed to. And thank you as well for the feedback on the names. Looks like it’s goig to be Ethan. I’ll have to think about Kannice. I like it, but I’ll see what my editor thinks.

  • Misty, I’ve had a similar experience with my books. Many of my local readers, people who would never have dreamed of picking up a fantasy, have come back to me after reading my stuff and confessed that they really enjoyed the magic and the alternate worlds.

  • David> Sorry to be chiming in so late–but this is an awesome post I will bookmark for “how to write character description.” I love how you note the reactions of the characters making the observations. We learn as much (almost) about the character doing the observing as we do about the observed. I’ve always liked that about good story writing. You can tell what a person values by how they react.

    As for unreliable narrators–I’m fond of Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe (or, as my students like to call it, the Cask of Armadillo. Granted, a cask of hard shelled Texas roadkill might be interesting, but the wine better fits the situation). I generally have to walk them through questioning how much they believe him. I mean he’s reliable in as much as he is reporting accurate facts about literal events (they’re in catecombs, etc…) and he believes he’s been wronged. He’s just crazy. I think writing an unreliable narrator would be a lot of fun, but pretty difficult.

  • Hey David,

    Yesterday was my travel day (coming home from Maryland), so I did not see this until today. But I had to add my voice to the choir of readers singing ‘Great job!’ I love to see real-life examples of ‘how-to’ points; I learn so much more that way. Thanks for taking the time to write these extra POV scenes.

  • Emily, thanks. As I’ve said before, point of view is the place where character development and plotting meet. So that everything your POV character(s) sees and experiences has a double edge — the observations tell readers things they need to know about the people and things your character encounters, but those same observations also deepen the character him/herself. It is, in many ways, my favorite aspect of writing — that feeling of operating on two levels at any given time. And yes, Montresor may be the perfect example of the flawed narrator. “Cask” is one of my favorite stories of all time, along with “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Hawthorne.

    Welcome home, Ed. Thanks for the kind word. Faith specializes in this kind of post — I’m still learning my way around them. But they are fun.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay! I really like seeing character descriptions from new POVs, especially if we’ve only been in one POV for a while and the new POV can force even a tiny shift in our thinking about a character, so to that end I liked your Kannice description a bit better than the priest’s but both were fun extra info. Another one that I think would be cool, would be a description from the POV of one of Sephira’s thugs. Then, as is discussed above, you have the added bonus of the reader knowing they should probably question the narrator, at least a little.

    And I’d like to chime in and say that I also prefer Ethan, especially for alternate history. I’d probably prefer Sephira Price as well, if only because Price looks more proper and makes a nice, scary imbalance with who she really is. Thanks for giving us all these nice views on how you shape your characters.

  • Thanks for the feedback, Hep, and also for the suggestions. Writing from the POV of one of Sephira’s toughs could be cool. I’ll have to think about that. And thank you, as well, for the name feedback. I’ll be thinking about all the feedback I’ve received as I begin rewrites later this summer.