Last time I wrote about the elements of a strong character description. In this article, I run through a couple of other considerations that you can use to maximize the impact of your descriptions while getting them to function on multiple levels.
All descriptions in your story are rooted in your point of view character. If the story is in first person, this is explicit; the description is delivered by one of the characters and so it will contain that character’s biases, observations, and knowledge of the subject of the description. For a third person narrative, the POV character still controls the narrative gaze. This means that if the narrator notices something, we expect that the POV character has noticed it too.
This means that you can convey the POV character’s perception of someone or something else by directing the narrative gaze. What does the POV character notice?
On one hand, this makes control of the narrative gaze an easy way to create subtext; if Alice is our POV character, and the narration stops to mull over Jane’s dark, thick eyelashes and full lips, the narrator doesn’t explicitly need to tell us that Alice finds Jane attractive. The nature of the description (word choice, attention to detail, subject) is enough to suggest that something’s going on. On the other hand, this means that descriptions written without an eye towards POV have the potential to get weird. If Alice stops to mull over her own lips/eyelashes/gorgeous body, readers are going to start to wonder why she’s constantly checking herself out–unless she’s really that into herself, in which case, fire away.
The POV character’s gaze not only clues us in to their relationship with others, but also shows what that character tends to notice. Think about how your character looks at the world—are they constantly scanning for danger? Judging people’s wardrobes? Looking for shiny objects? Descriptions are a window into how your POV character assesses the world and, by paying attention to this, you can actually use your description of one character to develop another. In other words, what Alice tells us about Jane also reflects on how we understand Alice.
By the same token, what gets noticed should be consistent with the POV character’s characterization—if your character has an occupation that requires high situational awareness but never notices anything deeper than people’s hair color, that’s going to look fishy. Likewise, if your character is supposed to be loving and nonjudgmental but everyone they meet receives an overwhelmingly negative description, readers might start asking questions.
Tone and Mood
The tone of the description has a lot to do with how the subject of the description is constructed. Think of this as the emotional angle of the description—how do you want readers to feel about this character? Depending on how you’re trying to establish them, there are different ways to approach the same person.
This means thinking about the connotations of the words that you use. Some adjectives (obviously) carry emotional weight. Take, for example, “shrill.” “Shrill” has a decidedly negative emotional valence, and it’s generally associated with things that are unpleasant. If you’re trying to establish a character as attractive, this is probably now how you’d want to describe their laughter. Not only does the tone of the description tell us how the POV character perceives the subject of the description, but provides emotional cues for readers.
It’s also worth considering the tone of the scene where the description is taking place. The tone of the scene will probably reflect on how readers’ perception of the character–coding a character as attractive might be sweet in the middle of a light-hearted romp through the meadow, but if the same description appears while the heroes are standing in a warehouse full of dead bodies, it will be interpreted much differently. For better or worse, emotional incongruity has the potential to be deeply unsettling. What’s important is that nothing in your story exists in a vacuum. Fostering an awareness of mood is the first step towards taking advantage of this.
In order to make a description to work, it helps to be aware of who has what information. First, what the POV character knows is important. It changes what they’re likely to notice. If Alice knows Jane well, the description might be more attuned to things that are out of the ordinary for Jane. On the other hand, this also means that Jane’s quirks and personal habits are less likely to be treated as mysteries.
Likewise, what the POV character knows changes the level of detail. If two characters are well acquainted, they’re more likely to know (and notice) the finer points of each other’s appearances. A stranger, on the other hand, is more likely to be described in broad strokes, since the POV character is forming their first impression.
Another thing to consider is what the reader knows. If the reader has never seen a character before, that usually means that the character needs a bit more description. When introducing a new character, it pays to give one or two concrete details so that readers can begin to form a mental image (especially if this is coupled with a strong entrance). The same goes for world details—if something is new to the readers, it’s helpful to describe it at some point, unless you have a strong rhetorical reason for withholding this information. We don’t need a lengthy explanation of the object, but it’s good to know what it looks like. Then, once readers have a baseline for how they should imagine a particular person/place/thing, you can begin filling in the finer details.