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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XVIII

The most important single ability of a fiction writer is to be able to characterize. Unfortunately it is also an ability which can never be taught. That being the case I’ll confine myself, in this post, to try to show some of the most particular faults that beginning writers make in trying to assign characteristics to the people in their stories.

The first thing to remember is, except in very rare cases, it is unwise to attempt to delineate character by setting down multiple details of personal appearance. To tell your reader that the heroine is dark and tall and beautiful with brown eyes and auburn hair, and that her skin is tanned, that her mouth is oval, her lips red and her nose straight, is bad enough. But then to go on and describe the creature’s large chin and suggest that her eyes, too, as well as her forehead seemed too large for her face, before beginning anew on the timbre of her voice, is to encourage your reader to wish for death.

In fiction, description has no other purpose than to delineate character. There is either a correspondence between the outer presentation of a person and his character, or the outer form differs from the inner and produces a temporary deception.

Consider this:

She had bright bulging eyes and a lot of yellow hair, and when she spoke she showed about fifty-seven front teeth.

PG Wodehouse

You can’t use it; because it’s already been done. But don’t you wish you had written it yourself? With the Wodehouse description you know immediately who you are dealing with. Any other details would be superfluous.The person in your story is not unlike an actor walking onto a stage. You can read about that figure in the programme or in critical articles about the play, but nothing you learn in these ways can compare with the way he or she is revealed through the actor’s entrance or the way he is characterized in speech. It doesn’t matter what the person is wearing, what will be significant to the reader or the audience for the play is the way that outfit is worn. Listen to this:

And then I had an idea for John Silver from which I promised myself funds of entertainment: to take an admired friend of mine . . . to deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament, to leave him with nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality, and to try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin. Such physical surgery is, I think, a common way of “making character”; perhaps it is, indeed, the only way. We can put in the quaint figure that spoke a hundred words with us yesterday by the wayside; but do we know him? Our friend, with his infinite variety and flexibility, we know – but can we put him in? Upon the first we must engraft secondary and imaginary qualities, possibly all wrong; from the second, knife in hand, we must cut away and deduct the needless arborescence of his nature; but the trunk and the few branches that remain we may at least be fairly sure of.

Robert Louis Stevenson

3 Responses to “Learning to Write XVIII”

  1. susan says:

    Very good examples here. I try to think along the lines of using character descriptive words in the way an artist uses caricature. With a few strokes, focusing on one or three of the obvious elements (Durante’s nose, Channing’s mouth, etc.), the character is recognizable.

    jb says: Hi Susan. You have to be a little careful of caricature. The main problem with it is that it tends to bestow some kind of moral judgement of the character, whereas characterization, when it is successful presents the whole person and gives him or her a chance to be free.

  2. […] spoke before about describing character. It has a place. But the most important method of adding to character in narrative fiction […]

  3. linda says:

    i read your comments with glee. I am going to join my local classes in writing, i will look to your comments and hold them in my heart when i am writing. You gave me much hope in my self. Thank you.

    jb says: Thanks, Linda. I’m happy if it helps.