How to Describe A Character

6 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick" appeared in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick” appeared in Drunken Boat. She recently served as the fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch near Austin, where she worked on finishing a story collection, Crooked Hallelujah.

When people call Anton Chekhov the greatest short story writer, they often talk about how quickly he develops characters. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for instance, he sums up a gentleman in Moscow this way: After the main character reveals the tiniest bit of his feelings about a woman to a friend at a dinner club, the friend says, “You were quite right, you know—the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” An entire social dynamic is revealed in those few words.

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world. Kelli Ford writes those kind of descriptions. To see how she does it, check out her story “Walking Stick.” You can read it now at Drunken Boat.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Kelli Ford describes one character:

“At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through.”

We learn not only that Anna Maria is poor and old, that she’s overweight with a limp, and that she lives in a place with gravel roads. But we also learn about how she faces a world that isn’t easy for a poor, old, overweight woman with a limp. We understand her mentality through the simple, matter of fact description of the shoes and the fact that she can feel the gravel. One of the most important words in the passage is always. Thin shoes and poky gravel are facts of Anna Maria’s existence, and she does not complain. A lesser writer would call her stoic, but a description like this one, because it shows us the character so thoroughly, makes us believe that she exists.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character, using Kelli Ford’s description of Anna Maria as a model:

  1. Start with the character’s age: “At — years old, So-and-so did (did not) _______.”
  2. Describe the character in terms of how he/she has always been: “He was still ______”
  3. But then add a recent change: “But (some new thing) made her ______.”
  4. Describe the affect this change has on the character: “As a result…”
  5. Describe the world from the character’s POV. Given the recent change, how does the character see the world? What does the character notice or do?

The idea is to move beyond basic physicality or mentality (short, tall, skinny, fat, smart, dumb, happy, sad) to a sense of interaction with the world. This means creating pressure on both sides: the pressure the world applies to the character and the way the character pushes back.

Good luck and have f un.

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5 Responses to “How to Describe A Character”

  1. Luanne August 7, 2013 at 8:02 p08 #

    Excellent post to get writers to think about creating character from inside the character.

  2. jdominique37 August 9, 2013 at 8:02 p08 #

    Nice advice! I always wonder if I’m giving too simple of details, or too much, but this really helps. Thanks!

    • michaelnoll1 August 9, 2013 at 8:02 p08 #

      Thanks! Glad you found the post helpful.

  3. The Journey Breathes December 20, 2014 at 8:02 p12 #

    Wonderful advice.

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