Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Character Descriptions

A few years back, I was having difficulty with a volleyball scene in Ming. I introduced a lot of characters in a short period of time, many of them players who would only be used in the two gym class scenes. My writing group had a tough time telling the girls apart, except for Michelle Vale:

“Michelle probably brushed six feet. She was all knees and elbows, a praying mantis with braces on her teeth and sad, down-turned eyes. The dark roots of her blonde hair broadcast that it wasn’t her natural color. She’d applied her makeup with a less practiced hand than her friends, looking like a young girl playing dress up. She must have money, Ming decided. Popular girls could do sports but sport girls without money rarely did popular, even if she was a star.”
It’s not surprising my cohorts got a handle on Michelle. She was the only new character in the scene who mattered to me, the only one I saw clearly.

Eventually, re-writes made volleyball back into basketball, as it was in the original draft (switching computers, I’d somehow lost one hundred pages; changing the sport made me feel slightly better about having to rewrite what was my favorite scene). Michelle Vale became Michelle Polaski. I also introduced Michelle at the same time as Ming’s three other antagonists, much earlier in the story. I started with broad strokes, adding details as the scene continued.

It just occurred to me- I could further help the reader distinguish the girls by clarifying Ming’s different emotional reactions to them. Sometimes, I wonder how many years of learning on my own I could skip by taking a writing course.

Anyway, since giving new characters immediate distinction was something I struggled with, I’ve often noticed how folks I’m reading manage the trick.

Jay McInerney offers this in Bright Lights, Big City:

“You suspect that his sexual orientation is largely theoretical. He’d take a hot piece of gossip over a warm piece of ass any day of the week.”
Dennis Lehane's short story “Running Out of Dog” features a Vietnam vet whose only outlet for his demons is shooting strays. Lehane immediately presents the character’s emotional identity:

“Blue was the kind of guy you never knew if he was quiet because he didn’t have anything to say or, because what he had to say was so horrible, he knew enough not to send it out into the atmosphere.”
Mystic River was one of my favorite reads of 2009, a modern tragedy with pathos to rival Shakespeare’s best. Mystic River offered some of the best character introductions I’ve read.

“It was a strong face, never pretty probably, but always striking. She was not unused to being stared at, Sean guessed, but was probably oblivious as to why she was worth the trouble. She reminded Sean a bit of Jimmy’s mother but without the air of resignation and defeat, and she reminded Sean of his own mother in her complete and effortless self-possession, reminded him of Jimmy, actually, in that way, as well. He could see Annabeth Marcus as being a fun woman, but never a frivolous one.”
Not quick sketches but mental Polaroids. You understand where she’s coming from immediately; everything after these snapshots is gravy.

Unfortunately, these paragraphs didn’t blend as seamlessly as the rest of the story. Because Lehane has the luxury of page time with his main characters, they’re allowed to unfold like petals in the morning sun. He needed to present secondary characters quickly so they can make their contribution to the story. I noticed every time.

I’d like to point out, this is criticism so gentle it qualifies as a subjective opinion. More of an observation, really.

Also, it could just be a side effect of writing. One of the things I hated most about majoring in musical theater was being unable to enjoy movies without picking them apart. After I stopped being involved with acting and theater, it took years to dissolve that critical eye and let a story sweep me away.

In the mighty Ben Fountain’s short story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” (one of ten gems collected in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara), he offers this:

“Hernan [was] a slight mestizo youth with catlike looks and a manner as blank and flaky as cooled ashes.”
The language fits right in with his descriptions of the “gelatinous drizzle” of the rainy Colombian jungle. In less than two dozen words, Fountain introduces a new character, gives that character a sense of place, and shows us how untrusting the protagonist is of him. Functional, simple, and poetic, a masterstroke of character description.

Thinking about how I stack up in all of this gives me a headache.

It would be much easier to use the method Christopher Moore employs in the upcoming Bite Me: A Love Story to describe his vampire-fighting detective duo, Cavuto and Rivera. Moore already described them in 1995’s Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story and 2007’s You Suck: A Love Story. He probably assumed readers were already familiar with the cops, so why not squeeze in another joke?

Moore writes “Cavuto, if he’d been a flavor of ice cream, would have been Gay Linebacker Crunch.”

Meanwhile, “Rivera’s flavor was Low-Fat Spanish Cynic in an Armani Cone.”

It might not have the poetry of “blank and flaky as cooled ashes” but it gets you to the same place. I don’t think we, as readers and writers, should dismiss this as a joke. I’m sure the first time movies featured people in France speaking French-inflected English among themselves it was a bit jarring, but now we just suspend our disbelief when the lights go dark. We accept that there are no foreign languages, just English with different accents. We accept when friends espouse exposition at the main characters instead of just chatting. We accept black best friends without depth and people too good-looking for their lot in life and men dating women half their age.

Using ice cream flavors as characterizations would save pages of reading and tons of ink.

“If Walter Mitty had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Diffident Nut.”

“If Dr. Jekyll had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Obsessive Guilt and Violent Desire Swirl.”

“If Sancho Panza had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Sweet Loyal Chunk.”

If nothing else, it would make my job easier.


  1. I too often find myself picking books and films apart although i am lucky enough to be able to compartmentalise and often as not enjoy it as a punter at the same time.

    It galls me when an author feels the need to recap or redescribe characters constantly as if they fear for the mental capacity of the reader - or forgetting their own creations themselves perhaps. Little makes me put a book down faster.

    Why worry so much about stacking up to how other authors write when you have such a voice of your own. Take a pill buster.

    {Would your flavour be 'sweet with fall and fish, cream, nuts and a cherry'?} {Maybe just with a sprinkle of nuts}

  2. Hahahaha, "Sweet with Fall and Fish" sounds really unappetizing as an ice cream. Hopefully not as a blog.

    One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules is to avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

    If Alastair was ice cream, he’d be Incisive Scottish Delight.

  3. With that kind of ego stroking Alistair would have to be careful not to eat himself!

    but cheers anyway......