Description and Your Characters’ Lens

I’m in what I think is the final round of revisions for my historical romance. I’ve said this before, but hopefully, it’s true this time.

I’ve been incorporating feedback from my critique partners, trying to eradicate nefarious narrative distance, and have found a group of local writers to serve as betas as I get closer and closer to the finish line (the finish line in this scenario is the querying phase).

One thing that came up after my betas read the first section of my novel was the need for more physical description of place and character – something both my CPs alluded to as well. Admittedly, description is tough for me – I find long passages of description boring as a reader and tend to keep the description in my own writing as concise and functional as possible. Especially in my historical romance, where many details are the result of conjecture despite the research I’ve done. Basically I’m terrified of getting my wrists slapped by a history buff for any assumptions I’ve made about the time period.

This is complicated by the fact that my heroine is already well versed in my story’s setting, so it doesn’t make sense for her to spend her “stage time” waxing on about the castle where she lives, the people she interacts with. They just are to her. Familiar. Taken for granted. A given.

But to my hero (and newcomer to this world), these things are worth mentioning as he takes in the sights and sounds and passes judgment on them.

Therefore I’ve created a rule for myself: In a character’s POV, the description is going to emphasize primarily new information.

Character ——> New Information

So, in my story, my characters will be focusing on different things in their POV scenes:

Heroine —-> hero and his men
(since she is already familiar with the setting)

Hero ——-> heroine and setting
(since he is already familiar with his men)

What’s left over is context, exposition, backstory. As well as character’s thoughts, emotion, and physical markers of emotion, which to me is different from physical descriptions of characters and setting — the type of description I’m focusing on for this post.

Unlike a story in first-person, where all the information must reach the reader through one perspective, in dual-POV stories (like most romances published today) the choice of what is described, when, and by whom, can not only move the story forward but speak to character as well.

As I revise and look for places to reduce narrative distance and add description, I’m trying to keep in mind the notion that my characters will be more aware of others’ actions and their surroundings, and place less importance on their own actions:

Therefore, when I’m writing a scene from my hero’s POV, he might acknowledge the fact he smiles to some comment another character makes and leave it at that. But when the heroine smiles, he’ll pass judgment on that action, no matter how slight. Does her lip curl up? Can he see her teeth? Does it remind him of the kiss they shared the scene before?

Not only does this help me vary physical cues, but enhances my hero’s perspective (and by extension his character) and give me an opportunity to flesh out parts of my novel that need more description.

This is a subtle shift, but an important one for someone like me who tends to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting in terms of fully visualizing scenes.

What ways do you use your characters’ lens to pass on information to the reader?

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And Now for Something Completely Different

That’s what I did this weekend: Something different.

The husband of a friend of mine was asked to teach a self-defense class at the local Y, aimed at women starting their first year of college. Since he never taught this type of class before, he asked me, his sister, his wife, and a couple of her friends to come over to their house to practice the class. He’d get a chance to troubleshoot the material while we learned how to defend ourselves.

Now, I have never taken a self-defense course in my life. I’m at the taller end of the spectrum and athletic in the sense that I played sports in high school and still do stuff to stay in shape. I’d like to think I’m not an easy target, which is probably why I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed to “defend” myself.

But it just so happens that I put a lot of my female characters in situations where they need to defend themselves, and until this weekend, I only had my imagination to guide me in crafting those scenes.

The class had a presentation component and then a hands-on part where we practiced kicks, punches, and techniques to maim opponents. It was surprisingly fun and hugely informative – especially for that writing part of my brain.

For example, personal attacks are usually power-based crimes, where the offender is seeking control over another person (sex is only part of the equation). And it is essential that they win the confrontation. In the attacker’s frame of mind, they must be justified in attacking, there must be no other alternatives, the benefits of the attack outweigh any consequences, and they must have the ability to attack. Without all these factors, they will choose another victim or opportunity to strike.

There are certain behaviors that can signal trouble:

Forced teaming – where the attacker will align themselves with you in a certain situation to gain trust and receive preferential treatment.

Charm – a learned social skill directed at you to receive preferential treatment

Too many details – the attacker creates a story to gain your trust but includes too many details to create illusion of authenticity

Typecasting – the attacker fits you into a social group you don’t want to be a part of so that you react against it and behave in the manner the attacker wants.

Loansharking – the attacker gives you something you didn’t ask for so you feel indebted to them

Unsolicited promise – The attacker says, “I’m just going to do x, and that’s it. I promise.” You believe them and let down your guard.

People who discount the word “No” – You say no. The attacker presses the issue, and you say, “Well, ok.” Cycle continues, chipping away at your consistency so that when you say no and mean it, the attacker disbelieves you.

Many of these behaviors are also found during the courtship and seduction of characters in romance novels as well. I’m not sure what the lesson there is, but it’s something to think about…

I also got a review of flight-or-fight behaviors:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Acceleration of heart and lungs
  • Constriction of blood vessels to unneeded parts of the body
  • Dilation of blood vessels to muscles
  • Shakiness
  • Degradation of fine muscle control

Some of these behaviors show up in my actions scenes, and some of them I’ll be sure to include for that extra punch of authenticity.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough – doing the actual punches and kicks and whatnot opened up a whole mess of sensory impressions I can use in my fight scenes. Before, I would envision a scene and write it down, relying primarily on visual impressions. I thought that was enough. I was wrong.

Now I know the proper techniques of some moves and can better explain them. I know what it feels like to be that close to another person with your hand on their windpipe or your knuckles knotted in their hair. It makes a huge difference, and if you can add those details to your story, it will certainly kick things up a notch.

Have you ever done something on a lark and had the experience enrich your writing abilities?
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