“I” Spy

A common problem for writers is finding workable solutions for exhibiting their characters’ attributes in an efficient-yet-interesting way. The most troublesome attempts center around the “Point-of-View” characters. While PoV characters give authors the advantage of being able to write narratives from an insider perspective, they can also present obstacles when authors try to have these characters give concrete descriptions of themselves.

Woman holding handmirror, reflecting mouth and chin.
Reflection - WIX Stock Photo

PoV characters can’t really see themselves. Just like you can’t see yourself without the help of a reflected surface, or a recorded image. You can, however, describe other people, when you’re observant, just like your protagonist can describe another character, and make it sound like an opinion. We all accept that observers can get away with this, and we agree or disagree based on our own observations. But what happens in life when you or I try to describe ourselves? We can’t really see what others see. Still, we have to stick with what we do see, and accept or don’t accept what others tell us about ourselves. For the least stilted descriptions or dialogue, authors should keep to this real-life premise in their writing.

An all-too-ineffective solution that some writers try to use is the “all-seeing eye.” If you’re writing from a godlike, universal PoV, readers will let you get away with this vehicle of perspective only if you’re consistent and you have a damned-good reason for a distant narrator perched in the clouds. If no gods, seers, artificially-intelligent overlords, or tale-telling telepaths feature in your book or story as PoV characters, don’t give anyone else the ability to “see and say” all.

Recently, I read an entertaining, murder-mystery trilogy in which the author also, unfortunately, stumbled a little over her PoV protagonist’s self-descriptions. I modified one such stumble, very slightly, to use it here as an example for an editing exercise.

When I first read the sentences, being totally immersed in the story, I wasn’t sure exactly what bothered me. But nag me, it did, and I was tugged from the train of narrative to go back and read this bit of exchange between two sisters once more:

“Daddy needs me, Wendy. You know that. I’m all he’s got left.”

“And why is that, Savannah?”

I stared at her like she’d asked me to explain how to assemble a nuclear bomb.

So that you know, Savannah is the main, PoV character in this scene, as well as in all three books. We know this because she refers to herself in 1st-person perspective: “I stared at her like. . .” and there can be only one “I,” unless the author cuts and jumps to other characters in 1st-person. (That’s another issue.)

So, what’s the problem? Is there something missing?

Let me repeat: Point-of-View characters cannot see themselves unless there are reflections of some kind available in which to observe themselves. For lack of opportune physical reflection, that “reflection” must come from another observer. That observer is not the PoV character, though, so the observer’s thoughts must not be projected, except through speech or actions. (1) Alternatively, the PoV character can express thoughts, or speech or actions, that make comparisons to a description that the author wants readers to entertain. Readers are thusly prompted to visualize how the PoV character looks in that moment. (2)

Following are some correction possibilities that can make the exchange work better and keep readers from wondering just how Savannah actually looked at Wendy, i.e., “and how would she do that?” and “what did she look like?” Both of these are fair questions from readers and could be answered, if the PoV character had actually shared her thoughts and could reasonably describe what her physical features were specifically doing. But she doesn’t/can’t. It would sound hokey, anyway.

And if she is “trying” to look the way she said she did (i.e., was asked to assemble a bomb), she either believes her sister will just know the comparison without saying (all-seeing), or she has too high of an opinion about her own abilities to project such a specific “look,” without even being able to monitor her own appearance. Was she practicing in a mirror just recently?

Possible edits:


I stared at her.

“Why are you looking at me like I asked you to explain how to assemble a nuclear bomb?” Wendy asked peevishly.

In this solution, The “I” PoV character, Savannah, is doing what she can: staring — her action — without being able to see herself. Her sister, Wendy, as observer, as mirror, can describe Savannah in dialogue, and we get the humor of the comparison. In this case, it’s Wendy’s witticism, not Savannah’s. Wendy can say this without having to explain, because she knows what Savannah looks like; she can see her. We also learn more about Wendy, too, through her behavior and emphasis (her tone sounds irritated). We can imagine what Savannah looks like based on Wendy’s realistic response. If the author wants us to see Savannah’s expression or body language, too, rather than imagine it for ourselves, Wendy may comment further about Savannah’s features (such as, “Quit knitting your eyebrows like that.”), or the two may explore extended dialogue (e.g., “Looking at you like what?”, “Like your eyeballs are gonna fall out of your head.”).


I stared at her. She couldn’t have surprised me more if she’d asked me to explain how to assemble a nuclear bomb.

If we want Savannah to carry the thought processes and witticisms all by herself, Wendy does not need to claim recognition of “how” Savannah looks, nor even interact further — but then, Savannah must be willing to express what she’s thinking in a way that provides a reflection from somewhere other than herself. In this case, her observer. And that’s Wendy, again. If Savannah needs to show extreme surprise, and the most extreme image she can relate to is a nuclear bomb, the author has to let Wendy create that reaction in Savannah (“surprised me”), while allowing Savannah to relate with a comparison — in this situation, to bomb assembly — in her own thoughts. Savannah could also say something to Wendy about the bomb-making, but why? It’s really only a fleeting thought, a human quirk. What matters is that Wendy has surprised her in a big way.

These are just a few of several revision techniques I recommend using to remove the sometimes-awkward occurrences of character self-description.

If you have PoV characters who spend a little too much time talking about themselves, allow their surrounding characters to talk about and describe them, instead. You don’t want your protagonist to be that person at the party who boasts and bores (unless you do!).

And if your protagonists spy opportunities for glimpses in a shop window, make-up mirror, or chrome bumper, go ahead and describe the funny shape of his head in his hat, and the curve of her determined chin. You can allow your characters to notice what they can see. Maybe even remark upon it. A little.

Man in Broken Glass - WIX Stock Photo

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