Friday, February 10, 2012

Describing Characters -- Close 3rd vs Omniscient

Long ago I purposely chose to use close 3rd rather than omniscient POV in my writing, because it gives the reader a sense of intimacy with the character. The reader will feel almost as if he or she is the character. However, the one trouble I have had because of this decision lies with learning how and when to describe characters in the story.

I was reading today and came across this character description that struck me as being so much better than anything I do (bonus points to anyone who can tell us where this is from without having to Google it!):

"Her pretty little upper lip, shadowed with a barely perceptible down, was too short for her teeth and, charming as it was when lifted, it was even more charming when drawn down to meet her lower lip. As always with extremely attractive women, her defect--the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth--seemed to be her own distinctive kind of beauty. Everyone took delight in watching this pretty little woman, brimming with health and vitality, who, soon to become a mother, bore her burden so lightly. After being in her company and talking to her for a while, old men and somber, apathetic young men felt themselves becoming, like her, more animated. Talking to her, and seeing at every word her bright smile and flashing white teeth, made a man feel that he was in a particularly amiable humor that evening. And this was true of everyone."

Never mind that part of the reason I was struck by this description was that it reminded me in a fashion of how I feel about my wife, this passage showed the advantage that omniscient has over close 3rd. In close 3rd when you already know someone well, especially if it is a spouse or one of your children, you have no realistic reason to be thinking about them in such descriptive terms, and after all close 3rd is supposed to be strictly about what the POV character is thinking or seeing or sensing at any given moment. A husband is more likely to focus only on something that stands out, such as if his wife had a smear of blood on her cheek or something of the sort. He's unlikely to give a full-on description of someone he sees every day of his life.
Vika in Beijing
My lovely wife--who lights up any room she enters--preparing for a dinner party in Beijing

So, I tend not to describe in much detail, but I am trying to learn how to do better. I am trying to keep this in mind while reading close 3rd stories, looking for brilliant passages that can give me clues as to how to do better. What are your thoughts?


  1. I'm not overly descriptive anyway, so basic third person works for me.
    Your wife is very beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Alex. I'm missing my family terribly after a full month here in Washington, but I get to go home tomorrow (though the flight will take a day, so I won't arrive until Sunday)!

  3. I always feel there's something a little old-fashioned in the omniscient POV. I enjoy but it often takes me out of the story.
    Love your wife's dress.

  4. Thank you, Susan. She had it made in China while we were there.

  5. Hi Ted, I'm stopping by to say hi! Glad you're enroute home. And, yes, your wife AND her dress are beautiful.

    I'm with Alex, I write 3rd person as well, mainly because that's the style I prefer to read. There is a certain sweetness about the passage you posted. I give, what's it from?

    Good to see you! that rebel, Olivia

  6. Your wife looks very elegant in that red dress. Red is also a great colour to wear as I believe the Chinese people equate it with good luck. A smart and lovely wife.

    Loved that description of the woman's upper lip, which sounds to me like a description by a lover, or someone meeting her for the first time.

    Hope you get home to the family soon.

  7. man alive! i swear i've read that passage before. jiminey christmas! you've got to let us know where it's from, because that's driving me nuts... i want to guess that jerky seatown guy who lived with the starks said it in a tavern somewhere... but it seems too nice for him to have said it being as he's so into himself... maybe tyrion? i suck. i give up. please tell us!
    can i just say:
    WOWZA (your wife)
    i've experimented with different perspectives... i think some of it comes down to who you're character is. i mean if your character notices details or reremembers stuff...
    case in point. when i look at my hubs, sometimes it just hits me again how handsome he is, the crinkly crow's feet or his mischievous dimple or the largeness and clarity of his blue eyes... i don't notice these things all the time, but every once in a while when he's being particularly silly or the light hits him a certain way, i draw in a deep breath and realize again, just how amazing he is.
    i believe you can see the same thing in your wife, and your character could notice like things in those around him if he's apt to notice such things...

  8. I don't use a ton of descriptive detail either. I actually find it really distracting when I read unless there is a REAL reason for it--somebody seeing someone again after a long time or for the first time. Usually I prefer it trickled and most often do it with contrasts (she had her normally long hair swept into a bun or her turquoise shirt reflected, making her eyes look the same color). I think more description fits in romance, maybe, but not many other genres. (and I also strongly prefer close 3rd)

  9. I haven't read this book, whatever it is, but I completely agree that was a beautiful description, and very true, even in real life.

    I think either way can work though, as long as it serves the story. I mean I know of books I've loved written in close third, where characters rarely describe other characters in their thoughts, and I know of books I've loved that were told by omniscient narrators, and everything was described.

    I know this is kind of a cop out, but for me, it works if it works, you know?

  10. POV depends on the story I think; usually one fits the bill better than the others.

    and I agree, your wife and that red dress are killer. lucky you :)