Tag Archives: descriptive writing

How to Write Active Character Descriptions

2 Dec
A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post is set in the Florida panhandle and follows a man who tries to save his brother from the consequences of a theft-gone-wrong.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Good luck!

How to Use Sensory Details

26 Nov
Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught to use the five senses in descriptive writing. By the time we’re writing as adults, it ought to seem like second nature, right? Too often, though, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

A really good example of using sensory details can be found in Syed Ali Haider’s essay, “Porkistan.” The essay combines those essential aspects of the first Thanksgiving: food and religion. It was published at Roxane Gay’s new online magazine, The Butter, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Haider writes about bacon, a food that is impossible to ignore, even if you don’t eat it. Here is how he describes it:

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Haider doesn’t use all five senses, but he does return to one particular sense over and over. He describes the sound of bacon cooking three different ways:

  1. “sizzling in a pan”
  2. “The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease”
  3. “Fat popping in a hot pan.”

Two of those lines (sizzling, popping) are onomatopoeia: words whose sound imitates the thing they are describing. The other line simply states the actual sound (bacon cooking in its own grease). Haider also describes the sight of the bacon: “drying on paper towels” and “Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy.” Next, he describes the smell:

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

Notice that Haider doesn’t try to describe what the smell is like. The smell of bacon is not comparable to anything else. Instead, he describes the way it sticks to everything (which is not helpful if you’re a Muslim, as Haider was, and trying to conceal your bacon consumption).

In two paragraphs, Haider has not only described bacon but attached those descriptions to story: the things he describes make life difficult for him.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description with sensory details using “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider as a model:

  1. Identify the thing to describe. Keep it simple. It’s difficult to describe something that is diffuse or abstract. If possible, name the thing you want to describe.
  2. State what the thing does. Sometimes it’s not necessary to compare the smell or taste to something else. A clear statement of what the thing does (cooking in its own grease) can clearly evoke the thing—and sometimes it can suggest sensory details. So, explain in close detail what the thing does. When and where do you find it? How do you know it’s there? What is it doing? How do people react?
  3. Describe the thing with a few senses. Perhaps you can use more, or even all; if so, great. But, very often, it’s effective to choose one or two senses and explore the different ways to use them. Haider uses two different onomatopoeic words. He twice describes how the smell sticks to different parts of his body. He finds two different visual descriptions of bacon: color and texture. Try choosing a sense and finding different ways that the thing looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes.
  4. Connect the senses to story. You’re really just connecting the thing to story, which should be easy; why else would you be describing it in the first place? Think about the effect the thing has on you. How does it affect your behavior? As you consider this, remember the sensory details. The smell of bacon made it difficult for Haider to hide the fact that he’d eaten it. How does one of the sensory details you wrote make the thing difficult to ignore?

Good luck and have fun!

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