Story Hospital

#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

When you say “character description” I assume you mean appearance. One important thing to remember is that you need to leave room for your readers to collaborate with you on creating their mental images of the story. Regardless of whether you’re writing in first, second, third, or omniscient POV, too much description can make it hard for the reader to engage their imagination. So don’t give more than they need.

First-person POV can also be used to deliberately conceal information about a character, such as their race or gender. Some authors keep it up for the whole story; others throw in a “gotcha!” moment of revelation. I don’t generally recommend doing this. It’s rude to the reader, it deprives marginalized readers of explicit representation, and it suggests that there is such a thing as having a point of view that isn’t influenced by gender or race (one’s own or cultural notions of same), which in most settings there isn’t. In my experience the characters always end up sounding like white men because that’s what’s culturally considered the unmarked state, and they’re often bland and underdeveloped because many interests and hobbies are race-coded or gender-coded and might give the game away. Also, stories that do this tend to come across more as thought exercises than as works of entertainment. So unless that thought exercise is what you’re after, I think deliberately obscuring appearance and identity is not worth bothering with.

The halfway point, then, is providing information about the character’s physical form that’s relevant to the story, and doing it as it becomes relevant to the story, giving readers enough to grab onto but not so much that they’re overwhelmed.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider what to include and how:

These may not seem relevant to appearance at first, but social, personal, and historical factors shape how conscious someone is of their appearance, and how they move physically through a situation. In first-person POV, an element only shows up in the narration if it’s something that matters to the narrator. So, in this situation, what aspects of the narrator’s appearance matter to them? Those are the aspects that you can convey in the narrative without it feeling forced or artificial.

Some examples of what this might look like:

This is what focusing on story relevance looks like: a character being aware of their body and appearance insofar as it affects or is affected by what’s happening in the moment. Instead of having a completely gratuitous scene where a character looks in a mirror or describes every article of clothing they’re putting on, you’ll have smoothly integrated moments of other people interacting with the character as a physical being, and the character interacting with other people and with the world as a physical being.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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