Sunday, March 10, 2013

Show Your Setting Through Your POV Character

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker  

Fiction writers – one of the fastest ways to bring your story world and characters to life is to portray the setting through the senses, feelings, reactions, and attitude of your protagonist.  

Enhancing your fiction by filtering the description of the settings through your viewpoint character’s senses is a concept I instinctively embraced when I first started editing fiction years ago. I was editing a contemporary middle-school novel, whose two main characters, a boy and a girl, were both eleven years old (I’ve changed the details slightly). The author had them describing rooms they entered as if they were interior decorators, complete with words like “exquisite,” “stylish,” “coordinated,” “ornate,” and “delightful.” Then, when they were in the park or the woods playing and exploring with friends, each tree, shrub and flower was accurately named and described in details that were way beyond the average preteen’s knowledge base or interests. 

Besides the obvious problem of too much description for this age group (or for any popular novel these days), this omniscient, literary, “grownup” way of describing their environment would not only turn off young readers due to the complex terms and sophisticated language, but also create a distance between any reader and these two modern-day kids. As a reader and editor, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know these kids at all, as I wasn’t seeing their world through their eyes, but directly from the author, who obviously knew her interior design terms and flora and fauna! By separating us from the main characters through this unchildlike, out-of-character description of their environment, the author inadvertently puts a kind of semi-transparent wall between us and the two kids. If we don’t get into their heads and hearts, seeing their world as they see it, how will we get to know them, and why will we care what happens to them?

I advise my author clients to not only show us directly what the characters are seeing around them, in the character's words and thoughts, colored by their attitude toward their surroundings, but to bring the characters and story to life on the page by evoking all the senses. Tell us what they’re hearing and smelling, too. And touching/feeling – the textures of things, and whether they’re feeling warm or cold, wet or dry. Even the odd taste. And don’t forget mood—how does that setting make them feel? Emotionally uplifted? Fearful? Warm and cozy? Include telling details specific to that place, and have the characters react to their environment, whether it’s shivering from the cold, in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or afraid of the dark. Bring that scene to life through your characters’ reactions!

This technique serves to deepen the characterization, bring the character to life, and make us feel like we're right there, while showing us the relevant, even critical aspects of the setting.

As Donald Maass says, in Writing the Breakout Novel, “Place presented from an objective or omniscient point of view runs the risk of feeling like boring descriptive. It can be a lump, an impediment to the flow of the narrative.”

He continues, “Do you have plain vanilla description in your current manuscript? Try evoking the description the way it is experienced by a character. Feel a difference? So will your readers.” 

James Scott Bell also advises us to “marble” the description of the environment in during the action. “The way to do this is to put the description in the character’s point of view and use the details to add to the mood.”

Jack M. Bickham gets more specific on this: “When you start a scene in which Bob walks into a large room, for example, you do not imagine how the room looks from some god-like authorial stance high above the room, or as a television camera might see it; you see it only as Bob sees it, coming in….” And include what he’s feeling, hearing, and smelling, too. Filter the scene through his perceptions and feelings. “This leads to reader identification with Bob, which is vital if the reader is to have a sense of focus.” 

Copyright © Jodie Renner

James Scott Bell, Revision & Self-Editing
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
– And Jodie’s experience reading and editing fiction

P.S. Click HERE for some basic tips on creating sentences that flow, on Jodie's own blog.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Jodie,

    You've touched on one of the big issues of craft. Your post reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft. A few thoughts struck me as reading: The interior decorator descriptions substituted vague adjectives for particular impressions. the botanical description substituted faux-objective classification (taxonomy) for personal response. In both cases, the writer feared the feeling. Or didn't trust the characters. I suspect the "semi-transparent wall" exists between the author and her protagonists as much as, if not more than, it does between us and the two kids.

    "Marbling" - I prefer to think of it as layering the descriptions gets us into the POV, because that's how we respond. I try to focus on POV reactions: what does this character see, hear, etc.? What will strike him first? Which sense dominates? In a conversation, what distracts her from the words spoken - or reinforces them?

    Then it's time to "filter though the perceptions" - the inner monologue.

    The key, of course, is getting "into their heads and hearts, seeing their world as they see it" for the two reasons you state so well.

    The "block description" works, oddly, for visual media: a comic book, graphic novel, or film script needs to separate description from dialogue. Prose dare not.

    In answer to your questions, as a reader I often skip past descriptions of setting and weather, or at least read them with less attention. I'm interested in character, conflict and voice. Once I "get" the setting, anything else is distracting. Maybe I read to my writing strengths.

    As a writer, settings must be described from the narrative POV. If that's 3rd person omniscient, so be it; a catalog is not a narrative. (Well, it can be, but the reader creates the narrative, not the catalog writer.) So even an omniscient POV has to use discretion. (Wasn't Dickens particularly adept at this?)

    Great post, as always. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful (as always) comment, David. As for showing the setting through 3rd person omniscient narrative, to me that's the opposite of what I've been saying here - that's the author stepping in to explain something to the reader instead of letting the character react to what's around him/her, which is so much more effective in sucking the readers into the character and their world and bringing the story world to life.

  3. Thanks for a great post, Jodie. I'm not a fan of reading lengthy descriptions. Subtle observations made in the POV of the characters is a much better way to draw a reader in to the fictional world.

  4. Your post could have been titled Why I Stopped Reading Tom Clancy. A simple sentence telling me that the submarine dashboard was cluttered with dials and instruments would have been perfect. Paragraph after paragraph describing each one was unnecessarily cruel.

    There's a fine balance between fleshing out description just enough and letting the reader take it from there and providing too much detail for whatever reason. (I suspect that sometimes it's a blind for an information dump to show how much the author knows.)

    When I write description from POV, it becomes fresh to me as well because my character is apt to see or focus on something I might miss.

    Another great one, Ms. Renner!

  5. Thanks, Jenny! Thanks, Peg! Glad to see both of you talented writers -- and discerning readers -- agree with me! :)

  6. Not sure why I can't respond directly - maybe Safari and blogspot aren't playing nicely. Anyway, I don't think I was clear. I'm not saying that if an author uses 3rd person omniscient POV that when describing "the author [should be] stepping in to explain something." That's a change of POV, if the author steps in. POV can be tricky. If the POV is omniscient (LeGuin calls it "Detached" or "fly on the wall" in her Steering the Craft), then the description has to be consistent with that POV. The "fly on the wall," though potentially omniscient, doesn't see everything.

    In teaching argument, I warn students about the "data dump" - the paragraph that's all facts without any organizing principle or relation to the thesis. (See how much research I did, professor? Yes, student, but who cares?) The same rule applies to fiction, which is what I think you were getting at: the description has to fit the story, either by revealing character, setting scene or mood, or contributing to action.

    My (only?) point was that an "omniscient" POV can do effective description, but only if it's consistent the POV driving the narrative of the story. You were pointing out, rightly, that too often the distancing POV distances author (and reader) from story, or just interrupts it altogether.

    (And I'm not sure I was much clearer, other than I don't think we're really disagreeing.)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.