The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?
A good example of using every available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can read the entire project here.
How the Essay Works
The final part of the series, “The Mother,” is about a passenger named Rosalinda who spoke no English. (You can find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.) Normally Ahtone’s approach was to strike up a conversation, but, in this case, that wasn’t possible because Rosalinda didn’t speak English. Watch how Ahtone builds that inability to communicate into the first part of the description:
Rosalinda had all her possessions in two bags: a trash bag and a giant resealable storage bag with the Homeland Security logo on it. She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison. She spoke no English and only a touch of Spanish and, from what passengers could gather, had taken a bus from Guatemala to Arizona 13 days before and was now bound for Florida.
Notice how Ahtone starts with what can be observed: what Rosalinda carries with her and the wristbands she shares with her baby. At that point, he’s run out of what can be learned directly, and so he finds a way to learn information indirectly: “from what passengers could gather.” In short, Ahtone is using the impressions and knowledge of the people around Rosalinda as a source of information rather than Rosalinda herself.
The rest of the vignette becomes as much about those people around her as about Rosalinda herself. Here’s the bus driver:
“She’s probably Central American or something,” said the bus driver. “I think she’s going all the way to Miami. That happens all the time on this schedule. We get a lot of Central Americans probably getting sent from one detention area to another, and they’re being processed.”
Through this quote, we learn something about the route and the people who tend to travel it.
Here’s another passenger on the bus:
“I want to get her something to eat when we stop, but I don’t know how to communicate with her,” said Dianne Whitlock as Rosalinda’s baby cried. “She’s not eating.”
And here is how the passage ends:
At the next stop, passengers in her section pooled their resources for water, soda, chips, diapers, baby food and a cheeseburger with a side of fries.
By looking beyond Rosalinda for information about her, the writer has also opened up the vignette to the world around the person he is ostensibly focused on. We learn about her, but we also learn about the kind of route she’s on and the way that a temporary community develops on the bus. All of this is built from statements made about Rosalinda by the other people on the bus.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s describe a character from the perspective of others, using “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone as a model:
- Describe the character using what can be observed. Ahtone describes what Rosalinda is carrying with her and one notable part of her wardrobe: the matching yellow wristbands. The key is to choose details that convey something about the character. It’s actually a good exercise to pretend that you’re viewing your character while riding on a bus. In that situation, it’s natural to draw conclusions about people from what they’re wearing or carrying or from their posture or behavior. So, choose one or two basic details that allow the reader to infer some basic aspects of the character’s life, background, or situation.
- State the impediment to knowing more about the character. In Ahtone’s case, he didn’t speak Rosalinda’s language. But language isn’t the only possible impediment. Perhaps a character doesn’t want to talk or cannot talk due to a physical cause or due to the situation (no one or someone isn’t allowed to speak). There are many situations that we encounter where speaking openly or at all isn’t possible or socially acceptable (like on an elevator). Don’t be coy. State clearly the reason the characters cannot talk.
- Look for other sources of information. The most obvious, of course, are other people, but in the absence of people, you can study the character’s relationship to her possessions or surroundings. (Think of the Sherlock Holmes line about watching what a woman first rescues from a burning home.) If other people are present, consider the difference in their perspective compared to your own (or your narrator’s). For example, on Ahtone’s bus trip, the other passengers had been riding the bus with Rosalinda for a while, and in that time, they’d observed her acting or not acting in ways that stood out to them. They’d likely tried to talk to her in Spanish and failed at that. Like Ahtone, you can use these different perspectives and levels of knowledge/experience to convey information that is not directly accessible to you or your narrator. What do other people think or see or notice or say?
- Look to the setting for information. Ahtone gets a crucial piece of information from the driver, who has seen many passengers like Rosalinda. So, think of your character as being part of a trend or demographic. We draw conclusions about others based on age, gender, dress, race, ethnicity, language, etc, all of the time. What conclusions can/would your characters draw based on their own experience and the setting where the story occurs?
- Consider how the other perspectives interact. On the bus, the other passengers worry about Rosalinda and eventually pool their money to buy her food and diapers. Of course, the other perspectives don’t need to react positively. We’re all coming out of the holidays, and so we’ve perhaps been reminded that not all personalities gel or work well together. If a character has drawn many people’s interest, how does that shared interest cause them to behave?
The goal is not only learn about a character who cannot or will not speak but also to learn about the surrounding characters and world.