How to Write Energetic Character Descriptions

24 Mar
Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died two years ago, but he was given a second passing a few days ago when The New York Times’ Twitter post announcing his death was somehow reposted. A lot of people were fooled, but it was a good opportunity to remember how great a writer Achebe truly was. It’s astounding at how contemporary and fresh the writing in his novel Things Fall Apart remains, despite having been written half a world away and fifty years ago. In particular, the character descriptions have a vitality to them that any writer today would be lucky to emulate.

The American writer James Baldwin felt the same way. Achebe was an admirer of his, and here is Achebe writing about the day they finally met:

What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. But reading it, he recognized everybody: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.”

Here the opening chapter of Things Falls Apart.

How the Novel Works

In the following passage, Achebe is describing his main character, Okonkwo, a man who gained fame for a fight with an undefeated fighter nicknamed The Cat. Notice how much time the descriptions spans and how active it is.

Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end, Okonkwo threw the Cat. That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look.

He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

It’s startling how much Achebe packs into this description. It starts with a fight, moves to a physical description that focuses on eyebrows, of all things, and then moves to breathing, the way he walked, the way he talked, and his relationship with his father. It’s an incredible jumble of information that makes absolute sense. So, how does Achebe pull it off?

The description depends so much upon the fight, those nerves and muscles stretched to a breaking point. This is a man of not only strength but also intense drive, and those ideas (the high energy of a fighter in action) carry the description forward: bushy eyebrows, heavy breathing, walking on springs, stammering, fighting, and finally lack of patience with people he viewed as lesser than him, especially his father. By establishing Okonkwo’s fighting ability, Achebe created a way to think about every part of the character’s personality and life.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an active character description using Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe as a model:

  1. Establish the character in action. It’s tempting to describe a character as a portrait, with as much action as a still-life painting of flowers. But people are rarely still, and, in writing as in life, we tend to learn about characters and people by what they do, how they encounter the world and its obstacles. So, choose a moment where your character is struggling with something. It can be another person, as in Okonkwo’s fight, or it can be an inanimate object: a lunch box or a seat belt. Think about how people act when stuck in traffic. Do they bang on the steering wheel? Sit back and sigh? Pull out their phone? Before painting a picture of the character in repose, show us the character in action.
  2. Distill that action to a phrase or image. Okonkwo’s taut and stretched muscles serve as a kind of guiding post for the rest of the description. How can you do something similar with your character? Think of the character stuck in traffic. Is she leaned forward or back? Is her jaw clenched or does she turn on the radio and close on eye? Does she text furiously? Scroll through Twitter casually? Use the adjectives or adverbs as an opportunity for repetition.
  3. Carry the idea of the phrase or image forward. Try to repeat the adjective or adverb without literally repeating it. You’re trying to find other ways to suggest the idea of those adjectives or adverbs. So, it’s no accident that Okonkwo’s eyebrows are bushy. Bushy fits better with the idea of taught muscles than thin. And, it’s no accident that he breathes loudly. It would be weird for him to be exaggerated in one sense and quiet and invisible in another sense (or, it might work, but it would be a contrast that would need to be suggested and created). So, think about every aspect of the character and try to convey the same adjective or adverb that you established in the initial moment of action.

Good luck.

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