Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Seems So: Are Your Characters Misleading Your Readers?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Things might not always be what the seem. 

One of the many strengths of point of view (POV) is that readers get to experience the story world through the eyes of your POV character. And characters can assume incorrectly, have an unfair opinion, or just flat out be wrong. 

But sometimes ambiguity sneaks in there when you don't mean it to, and you're not actually saying what you intended to say.

Enter the word seemed.

Seemed isn't always what it seems. Sometimes it reads like an opinion the POV character is making, and others it reads like the author explaining what they know about the situation. And there's a wide gray area where those two overlap, due to narrative distance and point of view.  

In general, the tighter the POV and the closer the narrative distance, the more the word seemed feels like an assumption or an opinion. The more distant the POV and narrative distance, the more told it feels.

Let's look a little closer. 

Say you want to show the POV character making an assumption. You night write it like:
Bob seemed happy, but his smile never wavered.
Seemed in this case implies that Bob is faking being happy. The POV character senses something feels off to them, and they're not sure they can take what they see at face value. Bob seems happy, but they don't think he is happy, because his smile doesn't look right to them. 

The "seemed happy" is offset by the "but his smile never wavered." There's visual evidence to back up the assumption. 

Compare that to:
Bob seemed happy, laughing and joking with all the kids.
The only thing in this sentence that hints that Bob may not actually be happy is the word seemed. If Bob really is happy, and his laughing and joking isn't an act, then it inadvertently misleads the reader. There's nothing to suggest why the character is making this assumption, which makes the POV character feel a little shifty. Are they hiding information from the reader? Did the reader miss something? Is the author telling readers something the POV doesn't know?


In a tight POV, this could be the character's opinion.

Bob seemed happy, (because he) was laughing and joking with all the kids.

The because in this case is implied, not stated (because that would be telling). The "laughing and joking with all the kids" could be the evidence presented to backup why the POV character thinks Bob seems happy. But readers can't tell for sure.

This is a good example of how context matters. The next sentence would confirm if this was the POV character's assumption or the author butting in to tell readers Bob isn't really happy. 
Bob seemed happy, laughing and joking with all the kids. But his smile never wavered. 
Bob seemed happy, laughing and joking with all the kids. He smiled as he chased them around the yard.

See the difference? That "but" shows readers why the POV character is making that assumption. Bob seems happy, but his smile is a clue he's really not. 

In sentence two, the smile supports that Bob is happy, and contradicts the seemed. The POV character would think Bob was happy, because there's no evidence to suggest he isn't, and they wouldn't use the word seemed. Seemed is unnecessary at best, telling at worst. 

When you use the word seemed, take a moment and consider if your POV character really is assuming what they see, or if they actually believe what they see.

(Here's more with Why You Should Have Judgmental Characters)

Seemed isn't the only misleading word. Appeared has similar problems for the same reasons. 
Bob appeared strong, with broad shoulders and biceps the size of canned hams.
Now, does Bob only have the appearance of a strong guy or is he really strong and the POV character agrees with this statement? It's not clear. Appeared is another judgment word that suggests the assumption could be incorrect, yet someone with broad shoulders and big biceps probably is strong. You don't need to say he "appeared strong" when you describe all the details that represent strength. 

Now try something like:
He appeared to be the charter pilot, with a jaunty cap and leather bomber jacket.
These details suggest he could be the pilot or it could be someone who dresses how the POV character thinks a charter pilot would look. 

When you use appeared, make sure that what's being described actually does appear to look like something besides what the POV character assumes it is. If the description is dead on and can only be what it describes, perhaps cut the appeared.

(Here's more with Want Better Descriptions? Describe What Readers Won't Assume) 

Looked is another assumption that's often not needed, and can even make a line feel told.
Jane looked scared cowering behind the car, her hands gripping the shotgun.
Is the POV character relaying what they see, or what they think they see? Are they saying they see a woman cowering behind a car and believe she looks scared when she's really not, or do they actually see a scared woman? 

If they're the POV character, they won't need to qualify what they see unless it's not clear from the description or they don't believe what they're looking at.
Jane cowered behind the car, her hands gripping the shotgun.
It's clear Jane is scared by the use of "cowered" and "hands gripping." The POV character doesn't need to say she looked scared when they show the clues that say "scared."

But looked is a great judgment word when making comparisons and using the POV character to asses a situation.
He looked like the kind of guy who would sell out his own mother for a cold beer.
You could easily continue the description (and thus show what the POV character thinks a guy like that would actually look like) or leave it up to the reader's imagination. But there's no ambiguity about what the POV character's opinion is here. "This guy is bad news."

When using the word looked, make sure you're not introducing a description by telling readers you're about to describe something. Is there a chance it's not really what it looks like? Then looked works. If it's clearly what it looks like, drop the word looked.

(Here's more with The Eyes Have it: Are You "Over Looking" Things in Your Manuscript?) 

Unless the goal is to show what the POV character sees might not be what it seems, appears, or looks like, using the words can actually change the tone or meaning of your sentence. It's not a bad idea to do a quick find to see if they're saying what you want them to say.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and search through one of your chapters for the words seemed, appeared, and looked. Are they necessary and showing the POV character or narrator making a judgement call, or are they telling readers what's really going on?

How do you feel about ambiguous descriptions? Do your characters ever assume something is wrong when they don't really question it? Have you ever thought about how you use these words?

*Originally published April 2012, Last update July 2023.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is something I hadn't thought much about -now I will! Thanks. :)

  2. Excellent post as always!

  3. Thought-provoking post, Janet. Lots of room for shades of grey. My general rule is to try to reflect my POVs mental state at the time of the scene. If bad things are happening because he trusted too many people or situations that originally seemed one way and turned out to be the opposite, the character is going in with suspicions and doubts about anyone, and therefore the "appeareds" "seemeds" and "looked likes" will all be used to put doubt in the readers's minds. Jane may truly be happy, and it may be obvious to Joe that she is, but he still might think, for example, "She seems happy, but maybe this is just like all the other times I've been wrong and gotten screwed."

    Conversely, if Joe has just saved the day for Jane and they both know what the stakes were and Joe believed that saving the day is what Jane wanted more than anything, he's safe to say, "Jane was ecstatic. Her eyes glowed with joy, and she hopped up and down like an excited schoolgirl, then gave me a bearhug of thanks that nearly broke a rib." (Excuse the silly writing.)

    But I will add those words to my Proofreading Checklist. Thanks.


  4. Excuse me, I meant "Janice. *DUH*

  5. I think sometimes "seemed" and "looked" get used because the writer doesn't want to be accused of head-hopping. You'd be surprised how often authors are told that if the POV character assumes they know how the other person feels without indicating it's an assumption, that it's head hopping. This is a nice argument against that

  6. Great advice. In schools in Ireland, when children learn creative writing, they're taught all sorts of bad habits (like using every damn word in the English language aside from "said," or filling every phrase with adverbs), including not to state something as fact when a character can't be sure of it.

    So we end up being taught to use "seemed" and "appeared" instead of just describing something. I had to cut so much unnecessary "seemed" from my book...

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  8. Great post! And like Sage said--sometimes if you don't put "appear" or "seemed" or such, you're actually viewing something outside the MC's POV. Sometimes I call out my critique partners on that (as well as catch myself doing it).

    But I think you're right--these words can tip our sentences into Telling, muddy writing, or ambiguity!

  9. Chicory, most welcome!

    Angie, thanks!

    Chris, there's always gray in writing :) Plenty of times you do want to show that ambiguity or assumptions, (I hope I didn't imply that you never want to do that), and you give great examples as to when. (and thanks for the name fix, lol)

    Sage, I can totally see that. Explains a lot.

    Paul, egads! You learned it the hard way :)

    Carol, absolutely. Useful yet tricky words these guys.

  10. Great advice! *adds "seem" and "appear" to list of problem words to check for when I start editing*

  11. Hmm...perhaps I should weave this into one of my Act IV scenes.

  12. Great advice, as always! So important to read this sort of thing.. it's amazing how easily it slips to the back burner and the words start creeping back in.

  13. Laura, my list keeps growing as well :) Good list to have though.

    Paul, I find stuff I know I shouldn't do all the time. The brain just spits out the words and when the writing is flowing I don't argue with it.

    1. Highly important to just let it all out when things are flowing. You don't want to lose anything, and it's surprising how often we find the perfect gem within the "varbage" that the stream-of-consciousness brain-dump produced. Plenty of time later to go back and revise.

  14. Great examples. I learn by seeing it both ways, so this is perfect. Thank you for the reinforcement.

  15. This post may be useful to my fellow critique-group partners - most of them over-use the various forms of "seem," "look," and "appear," aside from the syntactic implications of how they are used in sentences. I'm always pointing out stuff like: "I saw Bob walking in my direction" with a rhetorical query, "Who else but the narrator would see Bob?" when "Bob walked in my direction" takes care of it neatly.

    Someone else here points out that writers who use of these "soft" words are not confident in establishing the strength of the POV character. And I wonder, too, how many of us use them - again, to soften our content - so as not to offend readers with a straight-forward statement, in this world that seems (here, maybe the word is appropriate?) to be controlled by those who seek offense even when there is none.

    These words have their place, but they also have specific meanings and different places in the context of our work. Exactly WHAT do we want to say?

    (Other squishy writing that drives me batty is stuff like "... trying to begin to start to [plug in action verb here] ..." It proliferates in rough drafts, which I can forgive, but it needs to be cleaned up before publishing. Get on with it, already!)

    1. That's why I like seemed as a "soft word." It's a judgement call. I use them when I want to show my POV character isn't sure or is guessing. If a character is too sure of something they can't possibly be sure of, it just doesn't track and makes readers wonder how they can be so sure.

      Oh, that "trying to" is a pet peeve of mine, and there's a post on that as well. I'm fine with it if the trying is to show the struggle and failure to do, but too often the character is actually doing what they "try to" do, it just takes them a minute to do it. And even then, it's ambiguous. Did they do it or not?