Thursday, September 09, 2021

Describing - or not describing - your characters

Today I came across this piece I'd written back in 2004, and never seem to have done anything more with. If nothing else it's fun to read how different writers describe their characters: 

A character in a recent* Tim La Haye novel is described as ‘a hunk with dark hair.’  This may not be La Haye’s fault, since he regularly uses other writers to fill out the details, but it’s symptomatic of the weak descriptions prevalent in many current popular novels.

Here’s another from a recent thriller: ‘Linda. Soft, beautiful, generous, and solid, his backbone for three and a half decades.’ Solid? 

Many writers tend to avoid describing characters these days, partly a result of fashion, and partly a result of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of writing, whereby they reveal their characters through dialogue and action. But an author who can give us a succinct description of one of their creations, adds something to the reader’s imagination.

Consider Agatha Christie’s first description of Hercule Poirot: ‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.’

Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, fares worse: ‘His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.’ Looking at the various images of Wimsey, from drawings to TV performances, no one seems to have achieved anything like this wonderful description. 

Chesterton manages to describe Father Brown in endless ways, but here are a couple: ‘there shambled into the room a shapeless little figure, which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella as unmanageable as a mass of luggage.’ [He had] a breathless geniality which characterises a corpulent charwoman who has just managed to stuff herself into an omnibus.’

P G Wodehouse not describing a minor character: ‘There is no need to describe Teddy Weeks….a sickeningly handsome young man, possessing precisely the same melting eyes, mobile mouth, and corrugated hair so esteemed by the theatre-going public today.’

One of my favourite character descriptions comes from Middlemarch. George Eliot gives us more than a page on Sir James, so it’s difficult to pull out any particular piece, but here goes: ‘a man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine – as the smallest birch tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm – and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.’ Fortunately, Sir James turns out to be worth more than this description of him. 

Likewise, Annie Proulx in The Shipping News builds up a picture of her main character paragraph by ruthless paragraph: ‘A great damp loaf of a body. Head shaped like a crenshaw,** no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.’ It’s almost as if she didn’t like him very much.

And finally, Shakespeare on one of his favourite characters, Falstaff: ‘that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.’

* 'Recent' in 2004, that is. 

** A variety of melon, apparently. 

It's probable this piece was originally intended as a column for the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga. Those columns were published under the heading of The Juggling Bookie. 

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