September 3rd, 2013


When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke. They scrambled a noisy “good evenin’ ” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope. Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate. The porch couldn’t talk for looking.

The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
But nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody even
–Zora Neale Hurston, When Their Eyes Were Watching God thought to swallow spit until after her gate slammed behind her.

“Won’t you come in?”  She led them into an immaculate sitting room, antimacassars set with grim purpose as though aligned and placed with a template. Everything was exactly as it should be–china lined up in the cabinet, dinner dishes all washed and put away, the faint whiff of lemon oil and disinfectant in the air. It was a space that seemed to Ward essentially and inordinately female, as though it had never been contaminated by a man’s presence. Everything reeked of cleanliness and decorum.

–Erin Hart, Lake of Sorrows

He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. 

–Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

She had one of those guilty smiles, where the corners of the mouth turned upward just in time to keep the lips quiet — leaving a man to wonder if she’d wrecked his car, slept with his best friend, or given all his clothes to the Salvation Army.

She was the kind of woman who would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school.

–Linda Bloodworth Thomason, lines from Designing Women, Dash Goff the Writer

The salesman lifted his gaze. But two boys, far up the gentle slope, lying on the grass. Of a like size and general shape, the boys sat carving twig whistles, talking of olden or future times, content with having left their fingerprints on every movable object in Green Town during summer past and their footprints on every open path between here and the lake and there and the river since school began.
“Howdy, boys!” called the man all dressed in storm-colored clothes. “Folks home?”
The boys shook their heads.
“Got any money, yourselves?”
The boys shook their heads.
“Well –” The salesman walked about three feet, stopped and hunched his shoulders. Suddenly he seemed aware of house windows or the cold sky staring at his neck. He turned slowly, sniffing the air. Wind rattled the empty trees. Sunlight, breaking through a small rift in the clouds, minted a last few oak leaves all gold. But the sun vanished, the coins were spent, the air blew gray; the salesman shook himself from the spell.
The salesman edged slowly up the lawn.
“Boy,” he said. “What’s your name?”
And the first boy, with hair as blond-white as milk thistle, shut up one eye, tilted his head, and looked at the salesman with a single eye as open, bright and clear as a drop of summer rain.
“Will,” he said. “William Halloway.”
The storm gentleman turned. “And you?”
The second boy did not move, but lay stomach down on the autumn grass, debating as if he might make up a name. His hair was wild, thick, and the glossy color of waxed chestnuts. His eyes, fixed to some distant point within himself, were mint rock-crystal green. At last he put a blade of dry grass in his casual mouth.
“Jim Nightshade,” he said.

–Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Tired Minstrel, by De Chirico

The Tired Minstrel, by De Chirico

Character description is so much richer if it includes something beyond the physical, that points to some hint of who that person is beyond hair, eyes or height. These are some of my favorites. Think of the interesting ways these descriptions work: third person observation, juxtaposition of words that give an opposite underlying meaning to what’s on the surface, the use of metaphors so unique they immediately become attached to the character and could never be used to describe someone else, and action as description. Bradbury goes full out and changes the weather, the setting and the entire feel of the day for the salesman when he first sees Jim Nightshade.

Some of these characters are protagonists, but not all. Rich character description, crafting even one devoted paragraph to a secondary character (like the above Erin Hart example), is a way of making flesh out of cardboard.  (These few lines were enough to put her on my personal list of bona fide suspects.)

Is there a secondary character (or two or three) that you need to flesh out? See if any of the above descriptions inspire you to richer characterizations.  (This is also a great starter prompt if you’re having a hard time getting going.)