Are Your Characters Misleading Your Readers?

From Fiction University:

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?

However…

In a tight POV, this could be the character’s opinion.Bob seemed happy, (becausehe) 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. 

Link to the rest at Fiction University