Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What characters see

Continuing the bloggers' exchange program, I visited Becky Levine's blog to talk about staying focused, and coping with all the writing advice that one encounters.

In other news, the charming Susan at Wastepaper Prose is hosting a giveaway of The Secret Year paperback, plus a bonus treat (a miniature version of Julia's notebook, as described in the book).

And now, for the topic of the day:

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about description to which CE Dunkley commented: "One thing I have been trying to incorporate when adding description (besides including the 5 senses) is to concentrate on describing what the specific POV character would notice. This allows me to personalize the description or choose even what gets described."

I love that idea. It means that description isn’t just about setting; it’s about characterization, too.

I came across a great illustration of this concept in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. On the same day, two different characters get their first look at Main Street in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie. The first character, Carol, is a young bride who has been working as a librarian in the city of St. Paul. On this small-town Main Street, she finds, among other things, some buttons on display in a general store: “steel and red glass buttons upon cards with broken edges.”

The second character, Bea, comes to Gopher Prairie (a town of several thousand) from a farm whose nearest town holds 67 inhabitants. She sees the same general-store display: “a card of dandy buttons, like rubies.”

The characters view the same street on the same day, yet Carol sees smallness, dirt, dinginess. At the meat market: “a reek of blood.” From the saloon: “a stink of stale beer” and “thick voices bellowing.” She notices the sour smells, the noise. The decay of ill-kept properties, the clash in different styles of architecture. Bea sees the town as huge, busy, dazzling. She notices the marble counter at the drugstore and the velvet at the jeweler’s. Carol sees cheap buttons on a broken-edged card; to Bea, the buttons are gem-like.

The difference in these points of view is not due only to their different backgrounds, to Carol's having come from a larger place and Bea from a smaller one. The filters through which they view Main Street are also consistent with their characters' values, vocabulary, emotions, and ambitions. Carol seeks artistry, depth, significance, beauty. She dreams big and is often disappointed. Bea is joyful and optimistic; her dreams are more practical, and much more attainable.

Because of this extreme contrast, Main Street's Chapter Four is a perfect one for writers to use in studying the relationship between description, character, and point of view.


  1. Just clicked over from Becky's post and will look forward to reading more of your blog. This is a perfect way to think about characters! One thing about writing for kids (middle grade fiction for me) is that writers need to think about how a 12-year-old boy would see a character-- or even those buttons-- vs. how his mother/ his girlfriend/ his little sister might describe them.
    Great post!

  2. Thank you, Augusta! One of the challenges of writing for kids and young adults is taking off that adult hat, the adult filter. But it's a fun challenge.

  3. Came to your blog via Becky. Appreciated this post and added it to a course I'm giving this summer on creating characters. Thanks!