One of the more popular posts on this blog is how to spot info dumps that interrupt the effect of deep POV. But I wanted to focus specifically on how to avoid info dumps in deep POV as it relates to describing characters for readers. The feedback I consistently get from readers is please include more examples, so today is all about examples and rewrites. This is part 1. Let’s go!
In deep POV, an info dump becomes any instance where the narrator/writer voice intrudes into the story to give a summary or info the character wouldn’t think about themselves. Sam is always quick to apologize and never late for work. His work ethic, learned on the farm as a boy, has never let him down. What deep POV wants you to do is give the reader the lived experience of meeting Sam. The sentences above TELL readers much more info than we need when we first meet Sam, and nothing that’s really important to the moment. Instead, what deep POV wants you to do is give the reader the POV character’s impression of Sam. What information does the POV character take in? What do they think of Sam? How do they feel about Sam?
Sam stood up to greet me, his handshake firm but polite. His gaze was firmly anchored on my face, his smile genuine. Just once, it would be nice if Sam showed up with bad breath, a stain on his shirt, or a missed typo in an email. Just to prove he wasn’t perfect.
With character descriptions, genre can play a role. Most romance genres want to know up front what a character looks like, but be strategic with those details. Other genres are more flexible. Detailed descriptions of physical traits are often skimmed over when they only report things the reader doesn’t find important.
When The POV Character Describes Another Character
How does your POV character see the world around them? That attitude, their priorities in a given scene, their history and preferences and prejudices all come into play. With deep POV, you must be economical with your words because it’s very easy to bog down the pacing.
Ask what your POV character feels about this character you’re introducing? Do they have a history together? What’s important to your character — what do they look for in another person — what are they looking for from THIS person? A woman might assess whether a man is safe to be alone with. A man might find a woman attractive — but what does he find attractive in this season of life? If he isn’t too concerned with looks, but instead is attracted to confidence, or proficiency or kindness those are the traits that would leap out at him. How would he assess those traits in a new person, what would he look for?
Resist the urge to describe a new character by their physical traits alone. A person having dark hair, or glasses or a limp is just reporting. Use description to show how the POV character feels about this character.
Examples Of Character Description From Limited 3rd Person Into Deep POV
3rd Person Limited: Sally tapped her toe and watched the numbers above the elevator count down its arrival. A man suddenly stood next to her. She moved a step away, but noted his dark hair, square jaw, and crisp shirt collar. Didn’t look like a rapist. (words like ‘watched’ and ‘noted’ add narrative distance. words like “suddenly” are the narrator voice. What causes the character to notice something? Or show the reaction – are they startled, whatever.)
Deep POV: Sally tapped her toe ticking off the seconds the slow elevator made her even later. The clack of a hard-soled shoe on the tile floor stopped next to her. The giant of a man stood half a step too close, so she eased out from under his shadow. He just stared at his phone like she wasn’t there. He wore leather shoes polished to a shine and an expensive watch. Far from harmless, but nothing about him said take the stairs.
3rd Person Limited: So that was Bill Pleat. All grown up. She squinted to merge her memory of his eight-year-old face with this adult in front of her. Maybe he’d changed? His eyes were the same, he was taller, but less hair. Definitely less hair. (This objective reporting of physical traits shows what’s different, but not how the POV character feels.)
Deep POV: So that’s Bill Pleat. All grown up. His eight-year-old voice still crisp in her memory. You’re such a loser! And now he worked for her. People change. He could have changed. She straightened to her full height and walked over to him, hand out in greeting.
Limited 3rd Person: She looked past all the new faces, searching for him. Grandpa had to be here somewhere. (words like ‘looked’ add narrative distance. just show what they see. How does she feel about Grandpa?)
Deep POV: She stood up on her tiptoes. Her gaze skimmed over those with dark hair focusing on the silver heads. She wove upstream through the crowd. An elbow jabbed into her shoulder. A workboot tromped on her toe.
She pushed towards his voice. “Grandpa!”
His familiar grin widened and the laugh lines around his eyes danced. She wrapped her arms around his barrel chest and hugged him.
3rd Person Limited: Joe leaned forward as he watched the game. Alicia darted down the stairs and out the door. What was that about? He went to the door and bellowed. She just got in a car and drove off. (This is objective reporting. We don’t know why he’s calling her back, what he’s noticed, or what he’s feeling. More properly, this is more like Objective third person.)
Deep POV: Just one more goal to tie up the game. Joe leaned forward in his recliner, the leather creaking under his thighs. Every muscle tense as the ball moved towards the goal. Movement on the stairs pulled his gaze from the tv, just a glance. Alicia.
“Bye Dad. Home by curfew.”
He grunted. The defense blocked the striker and now had possession. That was a lot of bare skin. She can’t go out like that. He jumped to his feet, ignoring the crowd roaring on the tv. She ran down the drive towards a waiting car with legs bare up to her hips. He jerked open the front door. “Alicia! Get back here.”
His little girl gave half a wave, got in the car and was gone.
Answer The WHY
Remember to answer the WHY. What information does the character take notice of? We don’t think about the things we don’t notice or we take for granted (familiarity). Important things escape our notice when we’re distracted, or focused on other things.
What does the character do with the information they take in about the other character? What are they feeling? What do those feelings make them do/say/think? If the information doesn’t move the story ahead in some way, maybe take an objective look at whether you need it. We don’t always need to know what a character looks like the first time they’re introduced, we don’t always need a detailed description of physical features. Details that show what kind of person the POV character believes them to be, or could be, are more important than a recitation of physical features.
Notable Character Details
When I think back to characters with memorable physical traits, those traits told readers much more than height or hair colour — those traits offered important insights into those characters. If you want to describe a physical trait, make sure it says more about the character than simply reporting facts that don’t mean much or stand in for anything.
Buttercup – Hunger Games. Buttercup belongs to Primrose Everdeen, the protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s sister. Katniss and Buttercup do not get along. But on page one of the book, Katniss describes this cat as “the world’s ugliest cat” with a “mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash.” But Prim named the cat Buttercup. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this shows us quite a lot about how Katniss sees the world, but also that she has respect for survivors.
Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones. His height and physical limitations defined this character. He proved his intelligence and wit were just as effective as weapons as a sword. “I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime. I’m guilty of being a dwarf.”
“Let them see that their words can cut you, and you’ll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it, make it your own. Then they can’t hurt you with it anymore.”
Jack Reacher. He is tall – very tall. He is not a man you want to cross. What was the biggest critique of Tom Cruise as Reacher? He’s not tall enough to be Reacher. Reacher’s height defines him — he’s bigger than most opponents physically and intellectually.
Anne Shirley – Anne Of Green Gables. Anne wouldn’t be Anne without her red hair, but she would say her red hair was her biggest trial. lol With her wit, short temper, way with words and strong sense of justice, Anne exemplifies fiery. “You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair… People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.”
Lisbeth Salander – Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. There are only hard edges to Lisbeth — no generous feminine curves, flowing hair, glowing skin. Her physical traits stand in to show the reader she doesn’t care what others think. Larsson doesn’t give us a description of Lisbeth right off. We get this two page description of her meticulous, creative, probably illegal, “dry as dust” reporting style of those she investigates – highlighting her sense of justice regardless of any timetable or the predicament revealing sensitive info would create.
“Armansky’s star researcher was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrow…She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as though she had just emerged from a week long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.”
BAM!! What a great description. A redhead who dyes her hair black. Hair as short as a fuse. These details show readers what kind of person Lisbeth is, how others perceive her. This description gives far more info than – ‘she had short, dark hair.’
When is it wise to use telling or author intrusion when describing a character? Or is it ever wise? What do you think?