Books such as The Da Vinci code seem to have plenty of character description and backstory before they set the characters in motion. True, Mr. Brown has been very successful, but surely there are pithier ways of giving us a pen portrait? After all, the modern reader has a massive visual vocabulary, culled from pictures, films, television and the net. We are used to processing information extraordinarily quickly. Staying put as we take a still picture of our character, before we allow ourselves the luxury of animating them and having them actually do something, can be a bit tedious.
Elvis Costello’s song Satellite starts with the line, ‘She looked like she’d learned to dance from a series of still pictures.’ It could almost be a blue-print for writing sharp, accurate description. Apparently, Alan Plater’s character notes for the character of Trevor Chaplin (played by James Bolam) in The Beiderbecke Affair read, ‘Trevor always walks as if it’s raining.’ Can’t you just see both the awkwardness of the dancer and the trudging, shoulders-down slouching of Trevor Chaplin? And yet we know nothing else.
Setting the characters off, then having the reader discover things about them as they go along is probably a much better way of ensuring that readers are hooked in. They want to read on to discover more about the characters, who reveal themselves in snippets as the novel unfolds. Surely, this is much more intriguing than winding up characters like clockwork mice before letting them loose on the reader.
Unbelievably, you can even take your cue from a writer as prolix as Thomas Hardy, who manages to keep his visual description of his most famous heroine down to a few lines. Our first encounter with Tess Durbeyfield gives us only this in the way of description:
A young member of the band turned her head at the exclamation. She was a fine and handsome girl – not handsomer than some others, possibly – but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the whole company who could boast of such an adornment.
We have to wait several paragraphs whilst her father embarrasses her in front of her friends, before Hardy gives us a bit more of her, telling us about her way of speaking, which gives him another chance to focus on her physical features:
The pouted-up deep red mouth … had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward, when they closed together after a word.
Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth year sparkling from her eye; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.
…A small minority, mainly strangers, would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again: but to almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and no more.
Perhaps more important than the amount of description is the fact that we encounter Tess whilst she is doing something – we see her in action, and thus we avoid static description. It’s not a bad idea to think that you’re writing the movie, rather than attempting to describe a photograph. By avoiding static description, Hardy makes her alive.
Let’s See Their Worldview
But we can be even cannier than that by amalgamating physical description, the character’s attitude and getting our story rolling along all at the same time.
One of the great introductions of 20th Century literature that combines these elements has to be Raymond Chandlers’ opening to The Big Sleep. Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, tells the story in the first person:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two storeys high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Marlowe is established straight away. The description of his clothes shows us that not only is he a man for detail, but the implication is that he’s smartened himself up for the job. He’s sharp-witted (I was sober and didn’t care who knew it). And the description of the luxury he encounters is both witty and shows us that this isn’t his natural milieu. Even the joke about the stained-glass window is a clever indicator that Marlowe is capable of rescuing someone. It’s either some deliberate foreshadowing by the author (can Marlowe rescue a damsel in distress?) or if not, then it’s a neat coincidence that can give the literary critics something to write about for decades to come.
And, vitally, the story has got underway. Marlowe has been called to the Sternwood mansion. We also know that he’s on an investigation (I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be). And lastly, we have intrigue – why is he going to this house? And, when all is said and done, we turn the next page to find out what is going to happen, not to see if our heroine’s smart Easter bonnet is salmon or cerise.
If you want a rough rule-of-thumb. Keep it pithy – you can always build it up as we go along.
Obviously, a short article can only cover a fraction of a big topic such as this. There is much more in Creating Convincing Characters. Out Now!
This article first appeared in The Writer's Wheel Magazine Issue 3
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