Web Editor’s Note: Please join me in welcoming Abigail K. Perry to the DIY MFA team! In her column, Let’s Talk Books, she’ll be dissecting passages from great writers, breaking down why what they do works, and how you can apply it to your own writing.
Have you ever walked into a park and people watched? How about the beach, or Target? What details did you notice about them? Did they have smooth or wrinkled faces? Was there a mother holding her child’s hand, or talking on her phone? When it comes to writing character descriptions, writers usually take two stances:
- The complete description. There should be a full description of the character, controlling the picture in the reader’s mind. Think Dickinson or Melville.
- The minimalist description. Only mention the essential details (readers are going to make up their own picture anyway, so why limit them?). Think Frank Herbert or Stephen King.
Whatever option you choose, great physical description does more than create a visual in the reader’s mind. They perform “double duty”, describing a character in a way that defines the mood and elucidates the tone of the scene. This is great writing. This creates memorable characters. But, how can we do this?
Let’s Talk Books
Write or revise a description for a supporting or opposition character to define the mood or tone in your scene.
- How can I write character descriptions that do double duty in my novel?
- How can I make my character “jump off the page”?
- Do my characters sufficiently contrast?
- Do my descriptions enhance this contrast?
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult’s character description for Ruthann in her novel Vanishing Acts.
At this point in the novel, the protagonist – Delia – has learned her father kidnapped her as a child, and that her birth mother, who she believed dead, lives in Arizona. So, when her father is transported to an Arizona prison, Delia and her daughter Sophie follow. Naturally, Delia is caught in a whirlpool of emotions. She’s heartbroken and anxious as she takes her first thousand steps into the Arizona deserts. She’s on edge. Enter Ruthann…
Passage (Page 130):
“No hable inlges.” She hurries back inside her trailer, and pulls shut all the curtains so that we cannot peak inside.
I would drive to Eric, but he hasn’t told me where he is. Before I know it, I’ve made a full circle through the motor home community, and I’m back on the driveway that leads me to the main road. The old woman is still standing there, and she smiles at me. She has the lined maple skin and moon face of a Native American; her short white hair is twisted into a red scarf on top of her head. Every one of her fingers is decorated with silver ring, something I notice when she flashes us by pulling aside the lapels of her coat. Underneath, she is wearing a T-shirt that says DON’T WORRY, BE HOPI, and various items are anchored to plastic loops sewn into the satin lining of the jacket – rusted silverware, old 45s, and about ten Barlining dolls. “Garage sale she says. “Extra cheap!”
Sophie’s face lights up when she sees the dolls. “Mommy –”
“Not today,” I say, and I smile tightly at the woman. “Sorry.”
She shrugs and closes her coat.
Over the years, I’ve heard it go both ways. Mention the color of a character’s hair or eyes or skin color, or even the color of an outfit. Don’t mention color, unless, let’s say, it’s important to the story’s plot. Think about how powerful it was when we finally learned why certain characters cared that Harry Potter had his mother’s green eyes! Personally, I think both can work. But depending on the context, one way usually works better than the other.
When it comes down to it, character descriptions are only as strong as their ability to perform double duty. Picoult gets this, which is why when describing Ruthann from her protagonist’s perspective she minimally mentions the old woman’s physical aspects, but serves a buffet of unique descriptions about her attire and actions.
But she mentions “maple skin”.
She mentions “white” hair.
She mentions the “red” scarf!
Yes, she does all of these things.
But…don’t they take away from the tone and mood?
Not at all. They perform double duty.
How does Ruthann’s character descriptions perform double duty?
Ruthann is an “old woman” with “maple skin” and “moon face of a Native American”. These create visuals of Ruthann’s physical appearance that make her real. But it’s the description of her clothes and the way she greets Delia and Sophie that toast a mood of uneasiness, skepticism, and edginess.
Ruthann is invasive in the way she “flashes” the inside of her coat, anchored with “plastic loops…rusted silverware” and “Barlining dolls.” Everything about this encounter rustles Delia, making her feel even more uncomfortable. She judges Ruthann on impact and so, naturally, the reader does too.
This is essential. Without this, Ruthann’s decision to help Delia settle into the trailer next door would lack shock appeal. And like Delia, it wouldn’t make the readers realize that people, like life itself, aren’t always what they appear. Ruthann’s descriptions set us up for later in the novel. It keeps us on our toes, and intensifies the novel’s circumstances.
What makes Ruthann jump off the page?
With the right spices, authors can cook character descriptions that give major payouts. Picoult’s novel, for instance, would lack intensity without a character like the Hopi Native American Ruthann, who looks down to nobody, who breathes, lives, and builds relationships on her own terms.
Details, like Ruthann’s unavoidable t-shirt and cheap junk hidden under her coat, exemplify this. Which is why when Delia can’t find the trailer she’s instructed to stay at (at the end of the scene) we’re all thrown for a loop when Ruthann steps in…one of many actions Ruthann will do that surprise us.
Does Ruthann contrast with the protagonist?
This one is easy: yes, yes, and yes!
Ruthann is a Hopi Native American who holds nothing back. Who doesn’t give a cactus about what others think about her. Delia, on the other hand, struggles with her identity. Yet, she’s quick to judge Ruthann based on appearance and actions. The woman sells, de-limbed, and then rebuilt Barbie dolls. Hence, Delia’s tight smile when she turns down Ruthann’s sale…and her detailed observation of Ruthann prior to this rejection. All of this makes us identify with Delia’s situation, Ruthann’s character, and the novel’s mood and tone.
Pretty sweet, Picoult. I’ll be reading more of her books! How about you?
Bonus: Writing Exercise
Write or revise a characters description from your prose that performs double duty. Don’t forget to share in the comments section for feedback and extended discussion!
Having trouble getting started? Try some of these exercises from James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing to jump-start your revisions:
- Make a list of all the physical traits of your character.
- Make a list of the moods you want to create, the way you want readers to feel as they progress through the story.
- Now, connect the traits with the mood words, and find ways to tweak them so they’re consistent with each other.
Now I want to hear from you!
Think Ruthann’s description created a different mood/tone than me? Do your character descriptions perform double duty? Do they make them jump off the page? Share your descriptions and comments using the hashtag #LetsTalkBooks – and have fun! I can’t wait to read it!
Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College, and has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.
In addition to writing, Abigail plans to teach screenwriting at An Unlikely Story (the priceless local bookstore owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney) in Plainville, MA. This class is in development and will launch soon!
Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest. You can read more about her work on this website or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry