Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'm not sure how to write description so that it seems like it's coming from the character. Isn't description just a way to help the reader see something?

If you’re writing from within a character’s perspective, then everything should be filtered through that character’s unique viewpoint. The human experience is a complex one and, as a result, a lot of factors influence any given moment.

Let’s say your character is looking at a tree. No two characters are going to experience that tree in exactly the same way. Both characters may notice the prominent physical characteristics: the golden hue of the broad leaves, the jagged bark and the one branch low to the ground that is stripped bare. However, each character is going to also see the tree through a personal lens of emotion, experience, and state of mind at that particular moment. Lucy might see the light shine through those broad leaves and crane her neck to see if she’s able to spot the top branches on the majestic tree. Charlie might focus on the bare branch, thinking of it as ravaged and abused. What each notices says a little something different about the current state of mind. Let’s look at a few more examples: Howard, who is a landscaper and knows something about trees in this area, might see the tree and picture the root system and how it extends all the way to the house on this lot. Jenny, who grew up in that house, might think of how she used to climb that tree and feel so exhilarated when alone and undetected in its upper branches. Individuality informs the way a character experiences anything—even something as simple as a tree.

In this passage from Andrea Barrett’s novel The Air We Breathe, Leo Marburg arrives at the Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis and the description clearly shows his attitude about the place:

When the lift opened he saw metal beds, in which lay long lumps not talking, not moving, not singing. Then he was inside a bathroom with a dark red floor. Toilets to one side, washbasins on the other. An adjoining room held a huge white tub, in which the nurse proceeded to boil him.

The description creates imagery for the reader and lends insight to the character’s experience.

Being mindful of perspective when describing can also influence the plot of the story. In Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters accompany their husbands to the home of the Wrights, where Mr. Wright has been murdered. Mrs. Wright waits in jail during the investigation. Mrs. Hale, the wife of the man who discovered Mr. Wright was dead, and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, busy themselves in the kitchen. Mrs. Hale had to leave her house in a rush and she left “her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.” As she moves through Mrs. Wright’s kitchen, she sees evidence of the fact that something interrupted her, too: the cover off a wooden bucket of sugar and the bag of sugar only half filled from it, and a dish towel in the middle of the table, one side wiped clean and the other half still messy. They go on to find more evidence of the circumstances and Mrs. Wright’s state of mind around the time of Mr. Wright’s murder, which suggests what actually happened. Mrs. Hale is able to see these details through the lens of experience—she knows the implications of what she sees. The men, on the other hand, pass through the kitchen with little thought, convinced evidence will be found elsewhere. This puts the women in a situation where they must make a choice. Will they tell the men?

Description is an opportunity to deepen characterization and lash the reader closer to the character’s individual experience.