by John M. Floyd
One of the things I’ve always found difficult, as a writer, is presenting characters in a way that makes them real and believable and interesting to the reader. In fact — because it’s an extremely important element of fiction — it’s something I work hard to try to improve, in my own stories.
I’ve heard there are three ways to characterize a person in fiction. You can do it via (1) actions, (2) dialogue, or (3) description. I like the first two ways — it’s relatively easy to paint an effective picture of a character through what he or she does or says. ( It’s a way of showing rather than telling. The first time we “saw” Atticus Finch, he was performing an act of kindness for a neighbor.) The third option is the one that’s tough, for me. I think it’s a daunting task for a writer to fully realize a character, especially in the confines of short fiction, through nothing but description. How much description is enough? How detailed should it be? How do you keep from putting the reader to sleep?
There’s no magic answer, but the best character descriptions seem to be those that are done in a different and innovative way. What do I mean by different? Well, some writers are tempted to give the reader a laundry list of facts about a character’s physical appearance, clothing, etc. Since the author can already “see” his creation in his own mind, he seems to feel that a police-sketch-artist description is necessary in order for the reader to see it too.
It’s not. The professional writer rarely includes a lot of physical detail when he describes someone. Most good fiction these days (literary, genre, whatever) respects the reader’s intelligence, and assumes that he or she doesn’t want to be told every last little thing about a character’s appearance — height, weight, eye color, hair color, dress, age, race, etc. According to Stephen King in On Writing, “I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like — I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.” And author/editor/instructor Sol Stein seems to agree, in Stein on Writing: “My advice on achieving a balance is to choose the most effective detail and to err on the side of too little rather than too much. For the reader’s imagination, less is more.”
As in most things, a great way to learn how to do something well is to observe those who are good at it. Here are a few examples of characterization through description in narrative:
(Note: At first I hesitated to use more than one excerpt from the work of a single author, but Dennis Lehane’s latest novel The Given Day, from which three of the following are taken, contains some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time.)
Christopher Buckley: “The prosecution had given Lonetta Sue Scutt a good scrubbing and put her in a dress that managed to cover most of her tattoos. Her hair had been dyed so dark it had a granular quality, like a wig made from shoe polish and fishing line. For someone who lived in the desert, she had suspiciously pale skin, and decades of two packs a day had cured her vocal cords to sandpaper. She listed her profession as ‘homemaker’ and ‘exotic dancer.’”
Janet Evanovich: “My sister Valerie came in from the kitchen. Valerie is recently divorced and penniless and has moved herself and her two kids into my old bedroom. Before the divorce and the move back to Jersey, Valerie was living in Southern California where she had limited success at cloning herself into Meg Ryan. Valerie still has the blond shag. The resilient perkiness dropped out of her somewhere over Kansas on the flight home.”
Dennis Lehane : “For a small man Isaiah seemed tall. He stood as straight as any man Luther had ever seen, his hands folded in front of his belt buckle, his eyes so clear it was impossible to read them. They could have been the eyes of a lamb lying down in the last spot of sun on a summer evening. Or those of a lion, waiting for the lamb to get sleepy.”
Another from Lehane: “Her hair was the color of sand and strung in curls that hugged her scalp and ended just below her ears. She wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, and something seemed to move beneath her flesh at all times, as if she were missing a layer and if you looked close enough you’d see her bloodstream.”
Lehane again (on Babe Ruth): “. . . man was a child. A hippo-size, jiggling child with thighs so big you’d expect them to sprout branches, but a child all the same. He had the widest eyes Luther’d ever seen. Luther would remember that for years after, as he saw them change over time in the papers, saw those eyes grow smaller and darker every time he saw a new picture. But then, in the fields of Ohio, Ruth had the eyes of a little fat boy in the school yard, full of hope and fear and desperation.”
Obviously, that kind of writing is fun to read and helpful to study, but hard to duplicate. The main things seem to be (1) don’t feel you must describe a character’s looks, attire, etc., in missing-person-report detail and (2) try to make your descriptions as fresh and vivid as possible.
Your characters, I think, would approve.