What’s a great way to accomplish character description in first person POV? I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person.
What to Avoid With Character Description in First Person
Character description in first person POV (and what to avoid) is easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:
My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.
Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) when writing a character description in the third person.
When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.
External Character Description
Passages like the one I’ve written above are first person character description (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends.
You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. When you’re writing a character description about yourself, do you say, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?
That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m writing character description in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.
Character Description in Third Person
To further illustrate the differences when you’re writing a character description, let’s put the above passage in the third person:
His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that’s another post for another day…]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.
Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of no-nos in terms of how to describe emotion, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside.
Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when you’re writing character description in first person, when the protagonist is talking about their own body.
Writing a Character Description That Sounds Natural
This note about character description in first person is more subtle, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.
Do your character details sound authentic? Are you writing in the right POV? Hire me as your book editor and let’s talk characterization!