Story: “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford, published by Drunken Boat
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.
Novel: Big Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, excerpted on Facebook
No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?
Novel: Light by M. John Harrison, excerpted at Amazon
The problem is not to invent a story that’s never been written but to reinvent an age-old tale. This is what M. John Harrison has done in his novel Light, the first in a science fiction trilogy. The book features space ships and aliens, but Harrison moves far beyond the typical versions of these things.
Story: “White Wedding” by Nina McConigley, published by Memorious
When someone asks what your story is about, your answer might sound like this: “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: ”Now he felt different.” Here’s how.
Story: “Water Liars” by Barry Hannah, published in Garden and Gun
The narrator has discovered that his wife slept with other men before him, and not only does the news bother him, he’s also bothered by the fact that he’s bothered by it. As a result, the story becomes less about his wife and more about the narrator trying to understand his reaction to his discovery about her.
Novel: Minutes Before Sunset by Shannon A. Thompson
Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative.
Novel: Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht, excerpted at Necessary Fiction
Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works.
Story: “Filler” by Anthony Abboreno, published at American Short Fiction
When creating a character, we tend to think about the entirety of the character—asking questions like, who is this person, really—but sometimes all we need is one good detail.
Story: “What We Left Behind” by Mũthoni Kiarie, published at Narrative Magazine
Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss. This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.
Story: “The Monster” by Ali Simpson, published at The Southampton Review and Electric Literature
Everyone loves a good horror story. But anyone who tries to write such a story quickly discovers that it’s not enough to simply create a monster. You must also create a reason for the monster to exist. Or, to quote the great Albert Camus, who would have turned 100 this year, “A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.” In all great horror stories, literary or otherwise, the monster is often a manifestation of a character’s inner monstrosity.
Story: “Millions of Americans are Strange,” by Nicholas Grider, published in Guernica
The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?
Novel: Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler, published by Scholastic
For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves.
Essay: “Down at the Cross” by James Baldwin
One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?
Novel: Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, excerpted at Evergreen Review
Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?
Novel: A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post, published by Pandamoon
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.
Story: “Aviator on the Prowl” by Kalpana Narayanan, published by Boston Review
In high school literature classes, students are often taught about character foils—a yin-and-yang concept in which characters tend to be polar opposites of each other, as in the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” As a story device, an opposites-attract approach often works. But it isn’t the only way to develop character conflicts. In her story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” Kalpana Narayanan creates two characters who are remarkably alike rather than different.
Novel: In the Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson, published by Little, Brown
Fiction should not be nice to its characters. As soon as a character reveals some preference (I like this but hate that), the story has an obligation to force the character into that hated thing. It’s a tried and true strategy that can produce some of the best moments in a story, regardless of genre (remember snake-fearing Indiana Jones facing a pit of snakes?). So, how do you set up a situation in which a character must face the thing he or she detests most?
Novel: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, published by Anchor
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?
Essay: “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins, published in Salon
In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play. When it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters? One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves.
Novella: Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, published by Amazon Crossing
Some stories are about individuals, and the drama between them is so intense that the backdrop could be the Death Star or a blank wall and it wouldn’t matter. In other stories, the backdrop matters. Take it away, and the story vanishes. Whether the story is about a society as a whole or a particular town or neighborhood, the challenge is to establish the backdrop as quickly as you’d establish a character.
Essay: “Under the Aegean Moon” by Selin Gökçesu, published by Tin House
Stories about large-scale conflicts like war can reduce the characters involved to the level of those faceless henchman found in action movies, characters whose only purpose in the film is to get shot and die. Did they have friends? Family? Personalities? Who knows? It’s not important. Yet if a story is to be dramatic and engaging, its characters must have lives and personalities that do more than reflect the conflict around them.
Graphic Memoir: Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart, published by St. Martin’s
When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.
Profile article: “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone, published in Al Jazeera America.
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?
Novel: The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen, published by Europa Editions
Writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.
Essay: “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros, published by Huizache
It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.
Novel: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, published by Pamela Dorman Books
When describing characters, it’s tempting to attempt the literary equivalent of a mug shot and try to capture an exact likeness. A description of this nature will rely on precise details: height, weight, hair color, eye color, clothes, and shoes. But what does this really tell us? My father likes to describe a person with a particular body type as being “built like a brick shithouse.” This delightful statement tells you as much about my father as the person he’s describing, which is often the effect of good writing. An effective description will reveal essential qualities of both the character being described and the character doing the looking.