When we first start describing characters, there’s often a tendency to aim for a perfect representation, the equivalent of a photographic portrait. So we state the character’s body type, hair color and style, and clothes. But does even the most exact detail add up to something interesting? It’s often the case that a good character description, rather than being a snapshot, is more like the magical moving photographs that hang on the walls of Hogwarts. They’re active and dramatic.
A great example of this kind of description can be found early in Steph Post’s new crime novel A Tree Born Crooked. You can read the opening pages of the novel here.
How the Novel Works
The novel is set on the Florida panhandle and follows a man who is living in a trailer park when he receives a note that his father has died. So he returns home to the small town where he was born. There, we meet his mother:
Birdie Mae was a fat woman. She wasn’t big enough to be called “obese” or any other such ridiculous medical term. But she wasn’t small enough to be just “large” or “big-boned” either. “I’m fat, dammit. What the hell’s wrong with that?” she would yell at the doctors who tried to use polite euphemisms. She had big hands, with small fingernails that made them look bigger. Her eyes were a pretty blue, but always framed with gunky mascara, and when she worked at the store she wore peach eye shadow up to her eyebrows. Her thin lips usually carried the outline of sticky, pink lipstick. She had to constantly reapply it, as it always ended up smeared on her Virginia Slims. Her hair was long and dishwater blond, but James couldn’t remember ever seeing it down. Birdie wore her hair twisted and piled up on top of her head, sprayed into a motionless nest that didn’t even look good back when she first started doing it in the seventies. Birdie Mae had some delusion that she resembled Farrah Fawcett and running out of Aqua Net was cause for a family crisis. On more than one occasion, Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went out to the drugstore and brought back a can. She wore the clothes from the Citrus Shop that had defects and couldn’t be sold, so she usually stuffed herself into gaudy T-shirts and culottes. The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees. Above all, Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.
This description gives a pretty thorough portrait of Birdie Mae: her size and shape, her makeup, her hair, her clothes, and her attitude. What makes them interesting is the way Post makes them active, which she manages in four ways:
- The character is allowed to comment about the details. The description doesn’t just say that Birdie Mae is overweight; it lets her talk about being overweight (“I’m fat, dammit”). Without that snippet of dialogue, the character’s weight is static, something the reader sees and forms an opinion about. With the dialogue, though, the weight becomes active, something the character is thinking about. A a result, the reader is forced to deal with Birdie Mae’s opinion about herself. It’s the difference between judging people from a distance and sitting at a table, talking to them. The dialogue puts us at the table with Birdie Mae.
- A detail is given and then used to created drama. Post tells us that Birdie Mae uses Aqua Net on her hair. Then, she tells us what happens when the hair product isn’t available (“Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went to out to the drugstore and brought back a can”). Again, a simple detail is put into action.
- A general behavior or tendency is stated and then shown as it happens. We’re told that the character only wears gaudy clothes that she can’t sell at her store, and then we’re given this sentence: “The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees.” The tendency becomes active because it is happening as we speak.
- The details are summed up as an attitude. The problem with listing details about a character is that the items on the list often don’t cohere into something that resembles a living, breathing character. Instead, the details seem like the accessories of a Mr. Potato Head, something that can be changed or added at will. One way to make the details cohere is to end with a generalization, from the point of view of the narrator, another character, or the character being described. In this case, Birdie Mae’s point of view is privileged. After this long description, we’re told that “Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.” In short, we’re given a lens through which to view the details.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s describe a character using A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post as a model:
- Identify the character and make a list of details. You can also use a description that you’ve already written but aren’t happy with. It’s often the case that a description becomes active in revision, not in the first draft, when we’re trying to visualize the most basic aspects of the character.
- Let the character comment on a detail. It’s one thing to tell us that a character always wears a Chicago Bulls hat or goes back for a second helping at meals. It’s quite another to learn that and then hear what the character says about it. Is the character ashamed? Proud? Does the character make light of it? Direct our attention elsewhere? Rationalize it? Does the character have good reasons for the detail? State the detail and then let your character talk about it.
- Use a detail to create drama. If a character always does something or wears something, what happens when that something isn’t available? Anyone with kids immediately will understand this idea: try to put your kid to bed without their favorite stuffed animal or security blanket, and there’s going to be trouble. What happens when your character’s tendency or routine is thrown out of whack?
- Introduce a tendency and then show it in real time. Your character tends to do something, and they’re doing it right now. This is a good way to move the description from a place of timelessness to the immediacy of a scene.
- Sum up the details. Make them cohere into a whole that is larger than the pieces. Post does this by stating the character’s attitude about herself. You can also use metaphor and simile. The basic structure (which, once you realize it exists, you’ll see in books and stories everywhere) is this: detail, detail, detail, comparison. The character was this and this and this. She was like/a this. Here’s a bad example: He was always smiling, always laughing, always telling jokes. He was like a circus clown who’d wandered out of the tent and into someone’s home. You can do better than that, but it gives you the idea.