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Describing Characters


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Writers usually want to give an indication of what their characters look like to help readers visualize them. But that’s just basic. A really useful description, beyond offering much about the character, also reveals the feelings of the person seeing him and her as well as hints that will affect the development of the story.

I’ll start with two well-known passages about young women in bathing suits.

Philip Roth “Goodbye, Columbus”

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. The rose glided dry to the edge and then it was beside me. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from the water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.

This paragraph opening the piece establishes much about Brenda and the observing narrator. Until the shock of the final sentence it seems to be a visual telling of what he sees. Those sudden three words reveal how captivated he is.  What he has seen should prepare the reader for the why of his attraction. The sensual gesture of her flicked flesh is certainly one reason, a gesture that she may have performed for him. He has also used the floral metaphor of her head as a rose. Before then her dive has been beautiful. But he has also emphasized her myopia. She does not see at all clearly, and how will that fact affect the story to come?

 John Updike, “A&P” 

She had sort of oaky hair that the sun and salt had bleached, done up in a bun that was unravelling, and a kind of prim face. Walking into the A & P with your [bathing suit] straps down, I suppose it's the only kind of face you can have. She held her head so high her neck, coming up out of those white shoulders, looked kind of stretched, but I didn't mind. The longer her neck was, the more of her there was.

The straps down, though not as overt as Brenda’s flick, is provocative, at least as interpreted by the narrator, who also judges her prim face as a control of the sexuality of her straps. Her stretched neck is more questionable than Brenda’s rose stem. This narrator’s wanting more of her is a more aesthetic reaction than a blood jump. Brenda has also established a relationship with her narrator by asking him to hold her glasses, and her bathing suit is appropriate for a pool. That garment is a supermarket is transgressive. Is this narrator being taunted in a different way?

Alice Munro, “What Is Remembered” 

Instead, she looked at Pierre and the bush doctor. Pierre was talking with a boyish liveliness she didn’t often see in him these days. She occupied herself by pretending that she was seeing him for the first time now. His curly, short-cropped, very dark hair receding at the temples, baring the smooth, gold-tinged ivory skin. His wide, sharp shoulders and long, fine limbs and nicely shaped, rather small skull. He smiled enchantingly but never to charm, and seemed to distrust smiling altogether since he had become a teacher of boys. Faint lines of permanent fret were set in his forehead.

So many physical details about Pierre would be excessive in a different circumstance, if they came from a third person narrator. But the woman observing him is rediscovering him, trying connect the man in front of her now and all that is different about him with the person she has known in the past. Being a teacher seems the reason for his changes, with his distrust of smiling and his lines of fret. This paragraph establishes a mystery about Pierre, one that seems important for the woman and their future relationship. 

Tessa Hadley, “Because the Night”

Peggy was small and compact with pale skin and big eyes with thin, sensitive lids; she had a mass of red hair, just beginning to be threaded with grey, which was always a statement however she wore it: loose, or pinned up with ribbons, or in a swinging plait. Kristen was small and pale like her mother but her hair was nondescript. Peggy dressed brilliantly, too, in green dungarees and striped satin shirts and old flowered party dresses from junk shops: this was one of the things that made her stand out from the company wives at the parties (by this time Jim had moved on from Anglia World to Transglobal Services).

Although this description emphasizes Peggy and the characteristics of features and hair that make her special, it conveys two additional points. Seemingly more significant is the contrast with her daughter’s nondescript hair, unlike her mother’s red mass that made a statement. Will a tension erupt between mother and daughter, who gets only one sentence in contrast to so much about Peggy? The parenthetical fact about Jim’s job change calls attention to itself, hinting at a future role in the character relationships.

E.M. Forster, “The Purple Envelope”

On the morning of his twenty-first birthday Howard shaved himself with particular care. He scraped his fat cheeks till they shone and smarted, he pursued an imaginary beard far down his neck, and then, taking hold of his small yellow moustache, he combed it and waxed it and pulled it till it was as straight as a ruler and as sharp as a needle. 

“After all, I don’t look such an ass,” he thought. For he had a very proper wish to be handsome and terrible and manlike, now that he was a man. It was a cold morning, and the little shaving-glass became coated with his breath.

Clearly, Howard is seeking to transform himself and achieve a goal of manhood as he makes his mustache sharp as a needle. But other details and the words used to describe them undermine his effort. His fat cheeks are scraped with the razor until they sting, and the mirror obscures his face. This paragraph gives him a goal, preparing a story that will test him.

Mona Simpson, “Wrong Object”

 If pressed, what could I have said? That K was slender and nearly bald. That he was in his forties. He dressed in the style of our Southern California community: good hard shoes but no jacket. Often he wore a gray, collared sweater, soft, close fitting. Probably cashmere. I wondered where he bought it. The shirts my husband chose faintly bothered me.

Here a narrator is testing herself to describe—primarily to herself—a man it seems she does not know well, providing clear details such as his age and baldness, but speculating on other aspects. His sweater cashmere, suggesting expensive, followed up by wishing she knew the store he bought it. She is curious about K, wanting to know more. The final sentence may be the most significant as it reveals a dissatisfaction with her husband through his clothing. Will K compensate in some way and, if so, to what extent?

Jamel Brinkley, “No More Than a Bubble”

 We approached the girls, pointed to our stickers to introduce ourselves, and asked for their names. The tall one with the Afro said her name was Iris and did so with her nose, putting unusually strong emphasis on the I. True to this utterance, she seemed the more insistent and lunatic of the two. She vibrated. We asked where they were from. Most of Iris’s family came from Belize. Her friend with the buzz cut, Sybil, was Dominican. Claudius and I liked to know these kinds of things.

This paragraph, like the Simpson, is based on an overt curiosity, in this case that of two men about two women that have just met at  party. The only physical detail for each woman has to do with their hair, but much more attention is given to Iris—her pronunciation, which is interpreted as lunatic, she as vibrating. The explanation of wanting to know suggests a path to control. But can insistent Iris be controlled? 

Curiosity dominates through these description examples, most directly when a first person narrator seeks to know about someone else, but when the narration is third person, that narrator seems to be imparting what it assumes the reader would be curious about. These paragraphs deliver knowns that prepare for all the unknowns in the story to come.

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