Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Seems So: Are Your Characters Making Misleading Assumptions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One strength of point of view (POV) is that you get to judge the world by your POV character's standards. They can assume incorrectly, have an unfair opinion, or just flat out be wrong. But sometimes ambiguity gets in there when you don't mean it to.

Enter the word seemed.

Seemed is a handy word to use to show an assumption on the POV's part.
Bob seemed happy, but his smile never wavered.
Seemed here suggests that Bob is faking being happy. The POV senses something that 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.

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. If he isn't happy, there's nothing to suggest why not, which makes the POV feel a little shifty. Are they hiding information from the reader? Did the reader miss something?

Of course, seemed is a very effective word to use if the POV character is making a guess about something they couldn't know purely by looking.
The twisting path through the forest seemed safe.

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

Questions about believing what a character sees often show up with appeared.
Bob appeared strong, with broad shoulders and biceps the size of canned hams.
Now, does Bob just have the appearance of a strong guy or is he really strong and the POV agrees with this statement? With appeared used in this fashion it's not clear. It's a judgment word that again suggests the assumption could be incorrect, yet someone with broad shoulders and big biceps probably is strong.

Now try something like:
He appeared to be the charter pilot, with a jaunty cap and leather bomber jacket.
The details the POV describes could suggest he's a pilot or it could just be someone who dresses how the POV thinks a charter pilot would look. It's not clear that this person is the pilot, even though the POV thinks he might be.

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

Looked can also lead a reader astray (and make a line feel told to boot).
Jane looked scared cowering behind the car, hands gripping the shotgun.
Is the POV character relaying what they see, or what they judge they see? Are they saying they see a woman cowering behind a car and feel she looks scared when she's really not (or might not be), 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, hands gripping the shotgun.
It's clear Jane is scared by the use of cowered. The POV doesn't need to hint that what they see isn't really what's going on.

Looked is a great judgment word when making comparisons.
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 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's opinion is here.

When using looked, make sure you're not just introducing a description by saying 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, don't waste the words.

Unless the goal is to show what the POV character sees might not be what it appears, words like seemed, appeared, and looked, 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.

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?


  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.

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