We believe what our senses tell us. When we see someone for the first time, we instantly capture their visual image, expressions, and body language. In seconds we have an ingrained image and opinion of a person that we don’t even know. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—it’s true to us.
We believe our personal analysis above all else. If we believe a person is suspicious or dangerous, we will cling to that belief. If we believe a person is weak or helpless, we will continue to see them that way. What other people say about them—and even what they say about themselves—will have to be tested against our strong impressions. We believe ourselves first and foremost.
Example: You are at a park and see a woman hitting a little boy over and over while the child cowers and whimpers. You rush up and say, “Is everything OK?” The woman looks up at you, startled, then says with a big smile as she ruffles the boy’s hair, “Oh, yes, everything is fine. We’re having fun. Right, kiddo?” He looks up with fearful eyes and you see bruises on his arms and legs. What do you believe? Do you believe that everything is “just fine” and that they’re “having fun” as the woman tells you? No, you believe your senses and intuition.
Writers, if you don’t describe to readers what you see and feel in a scene, they will do it themselves. They will create and define the characters, scene, body language, attitude, and intentions in their minds. Then when you add details that are different, they will balk, and it will ruin the story for them. That defeats the whole purpose of your writing. Your goal is to communicate your story as clearly as possible so readers experience and interpret everything exactly as you envision it.
I recently read a suspense book about a female cop. It started with a crime scene in broad daylight, and as she’s walking up to it, her best friend (another person in law enforcement) winks at her from a car. I had no clue if her best friend was male or female. I just got an ambiguous name and a wink. So I imagined the friend as a female … young, very fit, wavy light brown hair, green eyes, cute, spunky, tough. Shortly after, I found out the character was a “he”—what? OK, so I turned “her” into a guy … young, tall, fit, with wavy light brown hair, green eyes, cute, confident, with a crush on the main character (because of the wink). Several long chapters later, I found out he was an older African-American man, very intense, who was married with kids, and was like a father figure to her!
I never could believe that character for the rest of the book. I couldn’t be “in” the scenes. The author could have easily written something like:
She cautiously slipped out of her car at the crime scene, carefully scoping out the area. She knew James had her six, but she glanced at his car anyway. He gave her a solid nod then winked, dark skin crinkling up around his eyes. He was the older, experienced one, but he trusted her instincts and was letting her handle this case on her own. She narrowed her eyes and switched into full focus. She could do this.
Many writers have asked me, “How do I describe the person if I’m writing in their POV?” Good question! You insert every detail you can—as soon as you can. Have them look in the mirror… at a photograph… like or hate their nickname and mention the characteristics they have which triggered it, etc. Here are some examples of revealing personal details while writing in someone’s own POV:
NO DETAILS: I pushed the rake through the piles of leaves, furtively eyeing the neighborhood through my dark glasses. A car slowed at the corner, and I slid behind a hedge, hand under my jacket.
GREAT DETAILS: I pushed the rake through the piles of leaves, furtively eyeing the neighborhood through my dark glasses. If anyone bothered to look, they probably wouldn’t think much of a short Spanish girl in a gray bandanna raking the yard. They might even think I was a teenager instead of a twenty-seven-year-old undercover cop. A car slowed at the corner, and I slid behind a hedge, hand under my jacket.
NO DETAILS: I should’ve spoken up. I knew better. Why all the games? I kicked her doorstep in the dark. Several times.
GREAT DETAILS: I should’ve spoken up. I knew better. I shoved back my hair and scratched my beard. That girl. Her wild red hair, natural and fiery as she was. So tall—almost as tall as me—able to stop my heart when those icy blue eyes locked onto my dark ones. Her sassy attitude, challenging me. Knowing she could have any guy she wanted, even at eighteen. Was a slightly-older cowboy not good enough for her? She knew she had my heart, so why all the games? I didn’t ask her out early enough. She was out—with some other guy. I kicked her doorstep in the dark. Several times. Actually kicking myself.
As a writer, describe your characters, their personalities, and their motivations clearly so we see them exactly as you do!
Savvy Writer Tip:
We all rely on our senses and intuition every moment to interpret what’s going on in life. We believe our senses and intuition. We take instant (subconscious) inventory of everything around us and make a judgment—and will stick with it, true or not. Writers, describe your characters as clearly as possible, feeding the readers’ senses and intuition exactly the way you envision every scene. When you tap into the deepest part of human nature, you captivate your readers, and they feel like they are right there in your world! 🙂