Tag Archives: Character Descriptions

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

23 May

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

Beginning writers tend to approach character descriptions in a pretty straightforward way: what does he look like? Is she tall, short? What is a distinguishing characteristic? A nose? Teeth? The result often resembles a police or personal ad description—and that’s fine. It’s a place to begin. But as a writer’s craft grows, so does the ability to do more with character descriptions.

A great example of what is possible can be found at the beginning of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Book Works

The book tells two different kinds of stories. One is about a murder. The other is about the author’s realization that she has a personal connection with the people involved in the crime. To make this double narrative work, we need to pretty quickly feel connected to the crime—to see the murderer and the victim as people who exist independently of those identities. This means, of course, making them appear complex and sympathetic. But it’s more than that. They ought to feel apart of a world. Take any person you know, and I suspect that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of them outside of the world they inhabit (or the world they share with you). This is why we’re so often befuddled when we encounter someone outside of their normal context. We can’t place them. In life and in our minds, people exist in relation to everything around them. So, a good description will capture those myriad complex relationships. Marzano-Lesnevich does that in the book’s first chapter:

Louisiana, 1992

The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same deadens street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it.

The paragraph continues, but you can already see so many ways that Jeremy Guillory has been placed in relation to his world:

  • The particular blue of his sweatpants draws a local comparison (Louisiana lake) and also different names from different sets of characters. Even with a minor detail, we’ve glimpsed setting and many different characters.
  • The boots place him not just in muddy woods but in a community of people who interact with those woods in a particular way.
  • We see his size in relation to his gun.
  • We see his care for the gun.
  • We see his mother and their family unit in relation to his mother’s friends and the street where they all live. We see the landlord who charges them all too much.
  • We see the street in relation to the community that doesn’t even know where it is.

When writing teachers talk about synchronicity or simultaneity, this is what they’re talking about: the ability of a single passage to show readers multiple things at once. In this case, it’s a character description that holds all of those things together—and also brings the character to three-dimensional life in our imaginations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character in relation to his or her surroundings, using The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich as a model:

  1. Choose a detail that cannot be agreed upon. This is how Marzano-Lesnevich begins, though it’s not necessarily the way you must begin. But, we’ll go in the same order that she does. She picks a seemingly innocuous detail (the color of the boy’s sweatpants) and then gives a neutral description (her own) and then two different takes on it (the mother’s and the police’s). This gives the reader a clearer sense of the disputed issue, of course, but it also allows the writer to bring in other characters. In a purely mechanical way, it opens up the narrative to characters beyond the one being described.
  2.  Give the character a trait that many others like him/her possess. She uses his shoes. We do this constantly in narratives, and the way point of view often matters. When done from an outsider’s perspective, these kinds of details can potentially veer into stereotypes. (Think about the way that baggy pants and Carhartt jackets are used by politicians as shorthand for entire communities.) In a story, those stereotypes can reveal a lot about the character who holds them. But when done from an insider perspective, as Marzano-Lesnevich uses here, the detail can reveal a trait (societal, geographic) that is so strong that it bends the behavior of the people who encounter it.
  3. Show the character next to easily identifiable objects. We know how long a BB gun is (or at least readers with a certain background will). So, we don’t need to learn exactly how tall the boy is. Numbers are almost always less interesting and compelling than comparisons.
  4. Show the character interact with some object. Jeremy polishes the barrel of his BB gun. What does your character take great care with–or what does he neglect?
  5. Show the other people in the character’s world. Think about friends, family, coworkers—or just “their people.” What do they have in common?
  6. Investigate the power imbalances. The landlord has power over everyone who lives on the street or needs a house. The community has power over the street, or seems to based on its not caring enough to find out where it is. Or, to flip the perspective, the street has a kind of power over the community because it’s able to remain hidden—or, at least, certain individuals on the street will be able to take advantage of this hidden nature.

The goal is to explore a character in relation to everything around him. It creates a better description and the opportunity to advance the narrative beyond what the character looks like.

Good luck.

How to Write Descriptions that Cut Both Ways

8 Sep
J. Ryan Stradal's novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an "impressive feat of narrative jujitsu" and "a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle" by Jane Smiley.

J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an “impressive feat of narrative jujitsu” and “a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle” by Jane Smiley.

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.

A great example of this two-edged description can be found in J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. You can read an excerpt at the website of Stradal’s publisher, Pamela Dorman Books.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, we’re shown an encounter between two characters who will eventually get married. So far, the narration has followed Lars, and so the encounter is portrayed from his perspective:

It was during these happy weeks when Cynthia Hargreaves, the smartest waitress on staff—she gave the best wine pairing advice of any of the servers—seemed to take an interest in Lars. By this time, he was twenty-eight, growing a pale hairy inner tube around his waist, and already going bald. Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most. This, to Lars, made her feel approachable.

This passage contains two different kinds of descriptions. The first is literal. We learn Lars’ age and two specific details about his anatomy (hairy inner tube, bald). With Cynthia, we about her height and teeth and one of her physical ticks. In short, we’re shown both characters’ distinctive physical traits. But these, for me, aren’t the best lines. Instead, it’s the statement that explains her beauty, in Lars’ eyes: “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” It’s a cliché to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also true. Good writing often revitalizes such cliches. (And, as much as I’d like to claim that piece of wisdom as my own, it’s been previously stated by, alas, Jonathan Franzen and covered in-depth in this book by Orin Hargraves.)

That line about trucks and pizza reveals something about Cynthia (she’s not what some might call “classically beautiful”), but it reveals even more about Lars, the kind of man who connects beauty to trucks and pizza. It also tells us something about the nature of his desire. He’s not simply admiring Cynthia the way someone might admire a statue. Instead, he wants her, which is a feeling one doesn’t usually get in a museum unless you’re an art collector. So, we learn about Lars’ needs, not just his aesthetic bent.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write double-edged descriptions using Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal as a model:

  1. Describe the thing literally. Don’t use metaphor. Instead, focus on physical traits—height, weight, particularly body parts like teeth or hair—or on personality traits like a big smile, quick to anger, easy to get along with. Write a lot. Go overboard with the description. It may be the case that the character isn’t firmly planted in your mind, and so it can be helpful to describe as much as possible.
  2. Give the description coherence. Don’t treat your characters like strangers. There’s a reason that eyewitness descriptions tend to be vague; they eyewitnesses don’t know the person, haven’t developed an opinion toward the person, and so recollect the most general of details. But if you were to describe your partner, sibling, child, parent, good friend, or mortal enemy, you’d likely be precise and specific. You wouldn’t, however, be exhaustive. You’d mention some character traits but not others, choosing the ones that fit into your sense of the person. This is your goal for a fictional description as well. Stradal does this in a very clear way in this passage: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful.” The sense of the person is important. Someone else might simply focus on her teeth and shakes and not consider her beautiful, and that sense of her would lead to an entirely different description. So, try this: Choose a broad word like beautiful, ugly, mean, kind, intelligent, savvy, deviouslazy, or ambitious. Then, write a sentence-long description that aims toward that word (and perhaps even uses it). In this sentence, you could include details that don’t seem to fit (like “an overbite and the shakes”) but say, “But he was ____ anyway.”
  3. Add the viewer’s perspective. Choose a set of eyes for us to see the character through. In Stradal’s case, he shows us Cynthia through Lars’ eyes. Because they’re his eyes and not someone else’s, Cynthia’s beauty takes on a certain tint. She’s not just generically beautiful. Instead, she’s beautiful “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” So, you’ve got a coherent description and a word (beautiful, ugly, etc.). Now, add an explanation of how the character is beautiful, ugly, whatever, in that particular person’s eyes. Don’t rely on a generic intelligence, savvy, or laziness. Instead, make a comparison, literal or not, to something else; that comparison should tell us something about the person seeing the character, the person whose head we’re in. The difference in calling something beautiful like a chandelier and beautiful like a neon light tells you a lot about a character.

Good luck.

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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