writing help - revealing character

Revealing Character in 3rd Person POV

Perri O'Shaughnesssy (actually two sisters) is a master at using 3rd limited POV to reveal character. She (they?) makes sure that the narrator's voice changes depending on who the POV character is in each scene.
 

In the Nina O'Reilly books, the protagonist is an attorney living in Tahoe. A secondary character is the detective, Paul, who lives across the state who is attracted to Nina but can't seem to convince her to be with him permanently.
 

Look how the narrator voice changes from Nina's to Paul's POV.  Here's a section I Paul's POV. (Note: there has been a blank line section break showing that POV character has changed.)


     Paul looked down[out his office window] at the Bog's Breath courtyard, where tourists in shorts mixed with local business types, He checked his watch and dreamed of lunch, a thick steak with home fries, coleslaw maybe—no, how about a Caesar salad, crunchy and tart. … There were some attractive women down there. One dark-haired girl with pale white skin, wearing a halter thing that showed off her magnificent breasts, sat cross-legged, disconsolate, alone.

    A guy in a white T-shirt with tattoos up to his armpits sat down next to her and put his hand on her delicate white knee. A shame …
 

Do you get a sense of Paul's character? You are right in his mind when he thinks of food. Notice there was no need for "he thought" or italics.  We are in his mind when he admires the girl. Notice that he referred to her top as a halter "thing". Had this been in a women's POV, a women would have used the correct term for the clothing.


Paul is obvious thinking the woman looks disconsolate—I don't take this as a POV issue (i.e. how does he know?). He's a detective observing and concluding.


In another scene in Paul's POV, the narrator describes a yard with yellow and red flowers. Had this been in Nina's POV, we might have had yellow and red tulips. Without saying so implicitly, the narrator portrays Paul as not knowing (or caring) about the type of flower.


This is a point to keep in mind when you are describing a scene. If you are writing in a character's POV, describe the surroundings according to how your character would register them in his or her mind. Would your character know the brand of that foreign car over there? If not, don't name it. If you character has no need to catalogue the height, weight, eye colour, hairstyle, and type of shoes of a woman he or she sees, (and usually doesn't notice those details) then don't state it.


Here's a section in Nina's POV. She's hugging her troubled son, who has always wanted to know who his father is.


He came to her, letting her hold him and kiss him on the cheek. Eleven years old, in the middle of a growth spurt, his frame was still childish and narrow, his shining dark hair was getting longer by the day, and his skin remained soft and unblemished. But male hormones marshaled invisibly behind that little-boy face. His feet were already bigger than hers. At some point soon his voice would darken and lower. More and more he looked like . . . but she didn't want to follow that thought on this cold night, with Paul coming to keep her warm, in good company. Banish old ghosts to the closet, where they belonged.

Can you see that it's Nina thinking those details about her son's form? The information is not being provided by an omniscient narrator. There is a reason for her to be noting how he's changing. You can see the concern, the realization that he won't be a little boy much longer. Also, her anxiety is revealed as she refuses to think about the father.


I think this is a great example of how O'Shaugnessy stays in close POV with her characters. Paul, for example, would not have thought about male hormones marshaled behind that little-boy face. He would not have noticed or thought, "Wow, the boy's feet are bigger than Nina's".


image41