Depicting characters — especially supporting cast members — means finding the elements that will tell the most about these people in the least number of words. Do this effectively, and you’ll not only have a living, breathing, interesting person on the page — you’ll have hooked your reader, too.
Many sources on writing that address character will focus on developing a character study — write 36 pages of character descriptions or you “don’t know your character.” Write down their innermost secrets and the truth they’ve been hiding since childhood. That’s all fine. Do that if it fits your project and/or works for you.
But eventually there’s another step so crucial that it will feel like stepping off a cliff from the 36-page character study: Boiling that preparation down to what actually appears in your story.
This post is going to look at writerly devices for describing characters and doing it economically so that your reader feels they are in the hands of a writer who knows what they’re doing.
Let’s look at 4 methods: Magnification, Compare & Contrast, Listing, and High Concept.
Let’s start with walk-on characters and small parts. Magnifying is maybe the most common method of depicting characters, small or large, and one of the first that you’ll learn to master: Show readers one significant detail, blow it up, and encapsulate the whole character with that significant detail.
Jack Kerouac was a master at this maneuver. Streaming down the river of “On the Road,” we meet far more characters per square inch than most novels, and as an observer of human beings, Kerouac is excellent at defining and painting a character in a very short amount of space. Here he keys on a man’s laugh and magnifies it to cosmic proportions:
Mr. Snow began his laugh from the supper table when his old wife said something casual; he got up, apparently choking, leaned on the wall, looked up to heaven, and started; he staggered through the door, leaning on neighbors’ walls; he was drunk with it, he reeled throughout Mill City in the shadows, raising his whooping triumphant call to the demon god that must have prodded him to do it.
This is as much as we get to see of this man and his laugh — Mr. Snow is pretty much gone from “On the Road” after this description. But what a walk-on. This man’s laugh is memorable both to the narrator-character of Kerouac and to the reader who gets to see him for merely a flash, just as the real-life hitchhiker Kerouac probably did, fitting the entire theme and m.o. of “On the Road” in one sentence.
Try it yourself. Describe a memorable character in your life by magnifying a key detail about them, and do it in just one sentence.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
People make a lot of Charles Dickens as an actor and theater man, but more importantly to his career as an author, he was a reporter and editor who wrote in shorthand. While his characterizations owe a great deal to the farces he loved and to theatrical caricatures in general, his ability to quickly and realistically characterize owes far more to his observational skill of real people.
Below, meet Scrooge and his thematic counterpart Mr. Fezziwig from “A Christmas Carol,” which is a very short story and relies on brevity in much the same way that Kerouac relies on it. Here we get two VIP characters, a paragraph each.
Scrooge: Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.
And Fezziwig, Scrooge’s boss when he was a young man who had once gone by the name “Ebenezer”:
Old Fezziwig rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself…and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: `Yo ho, there. Ebenezer. Dick.’
To compress these characters, Dickens keys in on telling details and contrasts them: One skinny, one big. One mean, one jovial. One solitary, one expansive. Both have loud voices, but one is grating and the other is comfortable and fun. As a result, we know these two by how they stand apart from one another.
This contrast is further sharpened by the love that Scrooge shows for Fezziwig while recollecting the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, for how different his delightful former boss is from the mean, dried up old man that Ebenezer has become. We’re shown so many layers of contrast, teasing them out by one of the characters being contrasted. Brilliant.
Then there’s Pride and Prejudice, in which master-of-character Jane Austen does the same thing as Dickens, but in a deft, single paragraph, describing Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, the parents of the books’ main protagonists. Here, Austen is comparing and contrasting these key secondary characters:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Unlike Dickens, Austen doesn’t rely on physical description for these compressed comparisons. Indeed, she uses fairly abstract language, which is necessary in order to set up the comedy of manners to follow: One is an odd mixture of parts, the other is easily understood. The lion’s share of Pride and Prejudice is dialogue (which is excellent too of course), so this is pretty much all the contextual description we get for these two characters before the witty repartee starts. One would think for how heavily Austen leans on dialog that her ability to describe might suffer, but not so. She’s a master at telling us exactly what we need to know about her people. To pull off Austen’s technique, you’ll have to distill and condense character information into hard, little diamonds — more like writing poetry.
Stop and try your hand at this method of characterization. Take two vastly different family members, childhood friends, or work colleagues, and compare and contrast them in just one or two paragraphs. What details are most important for you to show the contrasts? Which characteristics best spark against each other and make for good comedy/tragedy/action, etc.?
Listing character traits may sound easy, but you have to know why certain details must be mentioned and when to stop listing. Otherwise you wind up with, well, dull lists, random detail, and a boring read.
Read this paragraph from detective mystery master Raymond Chandler. This is from “The Big Sleep,” a description of a VIP character, the younger Sternwood daughter, Carmen.
She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slategray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pits and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy. “Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
Chandler’s method is quite similar to Dickens who lists physical descriptions of both Scrooge and Fezziwig. But why these details? Why this list? Because this list tells us tons about the main character detective Philip Marlowe — he’s the narrator and main character of “The Big Sleep.” So we’re not just getting a list of Carmen’s characteristics in this paragraph, we’re getting a picture of how this private eye thinks,a man who sounds like he’s reporting details to a cop or fellow detective so that we might identify Carmen Sternwood if we bump into her. In this way, Chandler makes the reader complicit in Marlowe’s jaded, seen-it-all-before attitude. “She smiled with her mouth,” Marlowe says. It’s as if he’s saying, “She doesn’t smile with her eyes. Fake smile, because she’s not interested in actually making friends if you know what I mean.”
Ready to follow Chandler’s lead? Make a list of details about an important person in your life or a key character in your story. How are these characteristics more than just a collection of details? Do they characterize the narrator or someone else in the story somehow? Does the sum of these details tell us something more than just the details you’re listing?
HIGH CONCEPT, HIGH LANGUAGE
The novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is about a community of people who are, taken as a whole, an actual, functioning character in the story. In the first pages of Zora Neal Hurston’s brilliant book, we see a woman coming to town after burying dead bodies and we get the reactions, judgments, and harsh assessments of this community as it examines her:
Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.
Having a group act as a single character challenges our ideas of what identity and personhood is — or what a character can even be. Who is this woman character to the group? Can a group show agency, change, volition? Can they together be personified as a main character? In a book about alienation, what does it mean that a main character is an entire group? These are the central questions of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” of course, a book that tracks these ideas forward into questions of which characters have true, individual voice and what liberty means to the other characters who clearly do not?
Matching voice with theme is a skill found in the terrain of literature (“The Big Sleep” is literature from my POV, not solely a mystery) and “They’re Eyes Were Watching God” is written in a high language that poetically contemplates vast human concerns, not merely plot points. “Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.” This is the kind of line that might get cut from a story concerned only with whodunnit, finding the dingus, killing the monsters, and nothing else. But in a story about liberty and voice, Hurston absolutely needs to write and save that line, let us read, re-read, and contemplate what it all means. The character of the community is seemingly a “free” voice and at liberty to judge. How do we know? Because we are reading words without masters. She’s defining the character of that communal voice and judgment, every bit as much as Dickens describing physical detail of Scrooge’s voice sounding gratin, shrewd.
Try this. Take a theme from your story or your life (desire, aging, grief, birth, greed) and personify it as an actual character. How real will this character be? How might it change and go through crises? How might be this abstraction interact with other characters? Allow yourself to be poetic and see if a more florid language allows you freedom to describe this character.
Did this help? What other methods for getting characters on the page work best for you? Report back and let me know if this post and/or these exercises were of use to you! I’d love to know.