Written by A Guest Author January 14th, 2021

The Art of Describing Characters

By Gillian Haines

Gary Provost said, “The story is not what happens; the story is who it happens to.” In other words, characters create and drive plot. They also make readers care about plot events. So how do we introduce vibrant, believable characters imbued with flesh, breath, and spirit that readers connect with?

Create a mosaic of unique details — not just lists of adjectives. Mere adjectives like eccentric, shy, or handsome are vague. Mere adjectives summarize and result in flat, stereotypical, one-dimensional characters that don’t rivet readers.

Let’s look at how successful authors go beyond lists of adjectives to create interesting protagonists. Instead of saying that Phyllida in The Marriage Plot was vain, superficial, and guarded, Jeffrey Eugenides said, “(her) hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.” In lieu of using fat or greedy, in her poem The Gulf of Blues, Angela Jackson said, “His whole body was like a stomach, round all round, fat even on his head.” Chris Cleave in Little Bee describes a creepy detention officer as having pale hair that was “like the tinned mushroom soup they served us on Tuesdays. His wrists were thin and white like electrical cables covered in plastic.”

Describing characters with a mosaic of details reveals nuance and complexity. Rather than simply describing a speaker at a conference as arrogant, Lawrence Wright in The End of October said, “the lint on his shoulders sparkled in the projected light of the PowerPoint.” Readers understand that the speaker was arrogant but also that there was good reason for that arrogance.

Margaret Atwood goes beyond an expected description of the color of character’s dresses. They are not just grey but “steel grey,” not green but “hospital-corridor green.” And Atwood uses those color choices to reveal a deeper psychology in The Blind Assassin: “I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.”

A character’s details work on more than one level. Balzac said, “Show me what a man owns, and I’ll show you what he believes.” Similarly, Tom Wolfe said that a character’s status details — possessions, behavior, and tastes — signify their position in the pecking order, or what they think it is, or what they wish it were. Thus, readers don’t need to know what a character is wearing when Wolfe depicts them nibbling on “little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs.” We know the watches glinting on their wrists are Patek Phillipe and Rolex. Likewise, when Joy Harjo wrote in Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues’, “his feet tired in his minimum wage shoes” she conveys more than Goodwill purchases and worn soles. Minimum-wage shoes implies that the wearer works hard, maybe even at two jobs, but gets nowhere.

Bio: Gillian Haines is a writer, editor, and prison volunteer. Her memoir writing appears in magazines and literary journals like Cherry Tree, Edible Baja, Bridge Eight, Santa Clara Review, The Illanot Review, Solstice, Flying South, Gravel, and BioStories. Her Fragile Landscapes was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.


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