How to Describe a Character

One of my pet peeves is authors taking the easy way out when describing a character.

Dan Brown makes me grind my teeth every time he describes a character. He’s a master storyteller, but I wouldn’t call him a great writer. Here’s one of his descriptions of Robert Landon, the main character in Angels and Demons (parenthetical comments are mine):

“Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an “erudite” appeal (whose quote? When did he ever hear that, when did ANYONE ever say that?)—wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer; a toned, six-foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.”

Argh! How was this trip ever published? He goes on:

“Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma—a man caught between centuries. On weekends, he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students (of course he would! He’s so cool and hip and trendy!); other times he could be spotted in his (wait for it) Harris tweed and paisley vest (gag!), photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”

By this point, I’m tearing out my hair. But there’s more:

“Although a good teacher and strict disciplinarian (of course), Langdon was the first to embrace what he hailed as the “lost art of good clean fun.” (Again, whose quotes and when was it ever said? If not, why the quotes?) He relished recreation with an infectious fanaticism that had earned him a fraternal acceptance among his students (in reality, they would have mocked him for trying, at 40, to be one of them.) His campus nickname—“The Dolphin”—was a reference both to his affable nature and his legendary ability to dive into a pool and outmaneuver the entire opposing squad in a water polo match. (Baloney!)

Those three paragraphs would work for an author’s notes about a character, but they never should have made it to the page in that way. First, because it’s dreadful writing, and second, because it is the author intruding into the story in order to describe the character. Otherwise, who else is giving that description?

Poor writers think it’s necessary to describe characters immediately upon first introduction. “Clive walked into the bar, wearing a dashing turtleneck, flannel slacks, and a woolen blazer. His dark hair was carefully parted, but tousled at the sides, a sign that, while he cut a dashing figure, he didn’t really care about appearances. He scrutinized the crowded bar, his piercing eyes searching for the beauty he planned to conquer that evening. He spied her at the teak-and-brass bar and sauntered over, his thin, athletic body weaving among other guests, oblivious to his own sexual appeal.”

Yes, you can retch. I’m recalling a scene from the Modern Family TV show, and writing a description. A purposefully awful description. True, we know what he looks like, and a bit about how he moves in his world, but the writing is pedestrian. It has no flair, and once again the author is intruding into the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, this is how a master describes a character:

“Sister Rolfe saw that the detective had just come in and taken up his tray at the end of the line. She watched the tall figure, disregarded by the chattering queues of nurses, as he began to move slowly down the line between a white-coated houseman and a pupil midwife, helping himself to roll and butter, waiting for the girl to hand out his choice of main course…. Her eyes followed him as he reached the end of the line, handed over his meal ticket and turned to look for a vacant seat. He seemed utterly at ease and almost oblivious of the alien world around him. She thought that we was probably a man who could never imagine himself at a disadvantage in any company since he was secure in his private world, possessed of that core of inner self-esteem which is the basis of happiness…. Probably he would be thought handsome by most women, with that lean bony face, at once arrogant and sensitive.”

That’s PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale, having one character observe the main character, Detective Adam Dalgliesh. I’ve gone through PD James’s Dalgliesh books and have underlined everywhere she describes him, and I was amazed at the paucity of instances where she has done so. Yet he is so vivid in my mind! Physically and psychologically, I feel I know what he looks like and who he is. Any description of him is from afar, from another character, never something he thinks about himself. It’s description, with judgment, given by another character. That’s why it works.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, has numerous excellent character descriptions. Here’s one:

“Menashe Shpringer, the criminalist working the graveyard shift, blows into the lobby in a black coat and fur hat, with a rattling of rain. In one hand Shpringer carries a dripping umbrella. With the other he tows a chrome caddy to which his black vinyl toolbox and a plastic bin, with holes for handles, are strapped with bungee cord. Shpringer is a fireplug, his bowed legs and simian arms affixed to his neck without apparent benefit of shoulders. His face is mostly jowl and his ridged forehead looks like one of those domed beehives you see representing Industry in medieval woodcuts.”

Ask yourself, why does this work? How does it differ from the Dan Brown examples?

Descriptions don’t have to be long and detailed. Simple line-drawings work, as well, as in this character description also by PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale:

“The door opened, letting in a shaft of light from the passage. Miss Angela Burrows jerked back the curtains, surveyed the black January sky and the rain-spattered window and jerked them together again. ‘It’s raining,’ she said with the gloomy relish of one who has prophesied rain and cannot be held responsible for the ignoring of her warning.”

I know instantly that Miss Angela Burrows would not be my first choice for a holiday companion.

As you read, study how various authors introduce and describe their characters. Notice the pacing of those descriptions in the book, when and where and how they occur. Learn from the masters how to do it artfully.

MobyDick

I’ll end with one of my favorite, by Herman Melville in Moby Dick:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Editor or Writer?

I’m torn these days. I desperately want to get back to my writing, but I must edit for a living. As an editor, I work with writers to help them fashion the best story or book possible. I read their work and see the magic, and the weaknesses. This is how I make ends meet. Born without a silver spoon, I must earn my living.

But as I work, I wonder. What is my writing like these days? Do I write as powerfully and succinctly as I suggest others write? Am I still capable of telling a compelling story? Do I have a voice that will seduce?

My creative juices are banked to overflowing. How I’d love to have the chance to stop my editing and my writing coaching and concentrate on my own writing. I delight in my job, but I’d love the chance to put earning aside and just live in my imagination for a year.

I know. That’s what all aspiring writers say. Real writers simply do it. So, am I a real writer, or only aspiring (after all these years)?

Tom has a friend who just self-published his first book on Amazon. The first in a series he is writing. My former boss, Cy, also self-published his first book (and I am thrilled that he has). I am helping to prepare a book for Via Lucis Press, which will require writing creativity as well as editing on my part. But it’s not “my” book.

My first novel attempt is a no-go. I’ve waited too long to finish it, and the world has moved past, technology has made the story obsolete, and I simply think it’s time to move on to something else. Every time I think I have the time to write, something else falls into my queue, and I’m off and running with my editing.

I write my blogs (this and my travel blog) to keep my writing skills flexed and honed, and that’s never wasted effort (from a writing standpoint, not necessarily a reader’s standpoint). But it’s time to do more.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote: Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing. I am doing the latter at the moment, but something inside is screaming at me to finally sit down and write. How I wish people still gave patronage to authors and artists and musicians, giving them the means to live while pursuing their art. Those were the days.

To be or not to be, that is the question. As 2014 approaches, do I make a vow to write, to carve out time every day, without fail, to do what I most desire? If not now, when? Livelihood is primary, but writing is vital.

I always congratulate my clients on completing their manuscripts, saying that they’ve climbed Everest and the rest is just editing. Will I, in 2014, congratulate myself?

Disturbing the Universe

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I am, and have long been, a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle (d. 2007). Most people know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time.

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I discovered her through the Time series, and later through the Austin Family series, as a child.

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As an adult, I read her numerous books on faith with great interest. She was an Episcopalian, a woman of strong faith and convictions, but a woman who wrote: Do we have the right to impose our own religious beliefs, from no matter which direction they come, on the rest of the world? I don’t think so.

If you haven’t yet read her speech on “Disturbing the Universe,” I highly recommend it. It’s available on Kindle for less than $2, I think. If you have read it, perhaps you won’t mind a refresher on her thoughts about writing.

The stories she cared about, wrote L’Engle, “the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

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“I turned to story, then as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning.”

She goes on, “But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the ‘How-To’ book, which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.”

Think about the stories you read when you were younger, either one-reads or those multiple-reads. Why did they enchant you? intrigue you? embrace your imagination? Did they open new thoughts to you, as well as expose you to new worlds?

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few sources of information left that is served up without the silent black noise of a headline, the doomy hullabaloo of a commercial. It is one of the few havens remaining where a [person’s] mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

L’Engle wrote adult fiction as well as children’s fiction, but I think her most powerful fiction was that written for children. For it was there that she opened my mind, and exposed me to new ideas, and allowed me to grow in the safety of her pages.

“I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. and every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”

Is disturbing the universe a bad thing? I don’t think it is. Without such disturbances, we become zealots, I think, convinced that we have all the answers and that everyone else should believe as we do. And zealotry is NEVER a good thing. As writers, we must be willing to shake up our own universes if we are to continue to nurture our readers. Entertainment is one of the main goals of fiction, of course, but that entertainment should also offer the opportunity for growth, I think, both for the writer and for the reader.

“Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. . . . I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.”

Shake your universe. Grow from your writing, and write with the intention of allowing your readers to grow. Shake their universe: ask the hard questions, and prompt them to ask more.

Fifty Boobs

I have some favorite words, some that I love to speak, and some that delight me just by their appearance.

One of my favorite words to say is “Euclid.” I love the feel of it on the back of my throat. Similar for “ungulate.” Now, neither of these words is particularly appealing on the page, however. In fact, ungulate is distinctly unappealing.

But I love to see the word “fifty.” I don’t know why. I simply find it elegant. It’s like the old Roger Moore movie that I liked just because of the name, “Ffolkes.” Double-f? Awesome! And the word that makes me smile every time I see it, purely on visual enjoyment alone, is “boobs.” It’s so playful! It’s so round. It’s so pleasing to the eye.

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It makes me smile.

Then there are the words I simply hate to read, not because of what they mean, but because of how they look. Lung. Oxen. Rotten. Blanche. Quixotic. Coarse. Hunch.  … Ack. Keep them away!

I’m not just indulging myself here. There is a writing point to this entry. Name selection is vital, especially for your main characters.

If the name isn’t pleasant to look at, your readers aren’t going to want to see it on the page time after time. And if it can’t be said in your mind easily, that could also be a turn-off. Think Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the main character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Being Russian, Dostoyevsky can get away with giving his character such a handle, but that’s probably not something you want to do on a regular basis. The patronymic Raskolnikov doesn’t roll of the tongue of the mind, and your readers would likely find themselves “bleeping” over the name, time and time again.

Plus, I hate reading a book where I can’t keep the characters straight, because there is nothing distinctive about the names or the names are too similar to one another to keep them straight. Ishmael, Dr. Nemo, Holden Caulfield, Tom Joad, Dr. Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Voldemort, Scout and Jem and Boo Radley…these are memorable names that stick with you, unique from the others in the book.

Play with the language to choose your names, as well. What other meanings might the name have? Nemo = Omen. Ishmael as an outcast, one set aside. Say the names aloud. Does it sound right? Does it look right on the page? Does it say something about the character: Huck Finn vs. Tom Sawyer.

Enjoy words. Play with them. Be aware of the different ways in which your readers experience words. Not all will experience them as you do. Make use of  that knowledge.

The Year in Review: 2012

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In the past twelve months, I have edited 46 academic books and works of fiction, drafted a book on racial profiling, co-authored a children’s book, and coached three new writers. Not bad, considering I also moved to the Southern Hemisphere and turned my life, literally, upside down.

My academic editing was for several well-known academic publishers, and I edited manuscripts for several repeat clients, helping them with books that are to be published in numerous countries. That’s the fun of having a world-wide clientele.

My academic editing included subjects as diverse as Christ among the messiahs, realpolitiks, DIY style in Indonesia, Muslim women’s memoirs from across the diaspora, healing of children after sexual abuse, independent film, love’s subtle magic, and workplace bullying in higher education. As I like to say, I’m getting a PhD in Everythingology, and the list of subjects I edited this year gives credence to that belief.

Aside from my academic editing, I also edited two textbooks (math and biology)…which is what most people assume “academic editing” means. Not so. They are two distinct endeavors.

I also worked with three new writers, who are writing a memoir of reincarnation, a series of theological tomes, and an urban novel. Again, extremely diverse subjects. I particularly enjoy working with new writers, helping them to discover their strengths, their voice, and the story they wish to tell.

I miss teaching fiction writing at UCSB Extension, but this is the next best thing. Truth be told, I might enjoy it more than teaching in a classroom, though I do miss the face-to-face interaction.

Simply put, I love my job. Here’s to a similarly challenging 2013, and unexpected growth and new avenues of endeavor.

Hatchet Jobs

The Omnivore is a website that rounds up reviews, bringing readers a cross section of critical opinion. Currently, they are running a Shortlist of nominations for 2013’s best “hatchet job.”

Last year, Adam Mars-Jones won for his review of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.

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As the Manifesto on the website states: “[The Hatchet Job of the Year 1012 award] rewarded honesty, wit and good writing. It condemned mediocrity, sycophancy and lazy adjectives. It put the reader first.” Furthermore, it wasn’t just about being snarky and clever: “But this is not just about wielding the axe. Our guiding philosophy is compassionate criticism.”

And so, on the site, they list the contenders for this year’s Hatch Job. Among the contenders, a review about a biography of Hitler, a book by Martin Amis, a sequel to Treasure Island, and a “poetic novel” about mankind. Each of the reviews on the shortlist is scathingly honest, and even if you don’t agree with the reviewer, you have to admire the conviction within the review.

But I write about this because the reviews are excellent guidelines for writers: What Not to Do!

Read the reviews and see the concerns of the reviewers. How has each book failed? What traps might you best avoid? For example, Allan Massie reviews The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine. Here is an excellent criticism:

“Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad. Example: ‘He watched Rysiek’s brown lips move deliberately in his carefully trimmed beard, as if his mouth knew how handsome it was.’ You might be pleased for a moment to have written that sentence. Then you would read it again, and strike it out. Raine left it in.”

That’s called “slaying your darlings.” I’ve written about that before. When you edit your work, as you must once the first draft is complete, you should seek out those “darlings” you created, those lines that sing of your great creativity. If they sing to you, then they’ll stand out in the novel, and not in a positive way. They will likely intrude on the reader’s experience of story. For that reason, you must annihilate them. Never should the author intrude on the story.

Then there is this criticism from Craig Brown’s review of the Odd Couple by Richard Bradford:

“IMAGINE that we had all trooped into Skyfall to find it a mish-mash of all the old James Bond movies, with a couple of freshly shot scenes, and the producers had just trusted we wouldn’t spot it.”

It’s true that every story has been told, but that’s no excuse for lazy or sloppy writing. Tell the story anew. Don’t simply rehash what has come before and hope that the reader won’t notice.

Richard Evans is harsh about Hitler: A Short Biography by A. N. Wilson:

“It would take more space than is available here to list all the mistakes in the book. Most obvious are the simple factual errors. The ‘Aryan race’ in Nazi ideology was not ‘the Eurasian race’; it did not include ‘Slavs’, ‘Latins’ or ‘Celts’. … Wilson purveys many hoary myths long since discredited by historical research.”

When you are writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, do in-depth research. Don’t assume ignorance on the part of your readers. I once had a writer decline to work with me because I told her that “historical fiction” did not mean that she could change the names of historical figures “just because.” If you’re going to write about the  54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, you must name the commanding officer Colonel Robert Shaw. He is a well-known figure from history. You can’t change the known facts. If you want a different officer, you can certainly invent him, but you can’t change the commander. She was rather indignant with me and wrote, “Ann, perhaps you don’t understand, this is historical FICTION and I can do anything I want.” I sincerely believe she simply hadn’t done her research, and didn’t want to take the trouble to do so. Needless to say, we parted ways.

I suggest you read these “hatchet job” reviews now and take notes. Further, I suggest that you make it a habit to read reviews on a regular basis, to see both the good and the bad in writing, and to gauge what readers want in their books these days.

The Darnedest Things

I learn the darnedest things in my job.

I’m currently proofing a college textbook on Biology. Fascinating stuff. Next comes a textbook on Mathematics. I don’t typically edit or proof textbooks; my line is more academic books…books published by professors on their expertise (diplomacy, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion, DIY Indonesia, music of the Fifties and Sixties, etc.).

Every book is filled with new facts and insights for me. That’s why I love my job. The biology book immediately grabbed my attention, with its discussion of Gregor Mendel’s work with genetic inheritance, and an indepth discussion of the workings of mitochondria. Another fun fact was about desert ants and how they navigate back to the nest after wandering for hours and many kilometers in the searing heat.

Experiments showed that the ants don’t use landmarks to navigate, but they do use the relative position of the sun. Plus, they count steps.

The pedometer hypothesis suggests that the ants always know how far they are from the nest because they track the number of steps they have taken and their stride length. The idea is that they can make a beeline back to the burrow because they integrate information on the angles they have travelled and the distance they have gone—based on step number and stride length. It doesn’t matter that they have wandered off on tangents on the trip away from home, because they can calculate a direct-line return.

To test this innate ability, scientists created three test cases: the legs of one group of ants were shortened by cutting off the lower segments; the legs of the control group were left as-is, and the legs of the last group were lengthened with the use of  prosthetic “stilts.”

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All of the ants were then released into a 10-meter-long channel and allowed to wander. When it came time to return to the burrow, the control group returned with no problem. But, the group whose legs had been shortened stopped short by about 5 meters before looking for the nest opening, and the group on stilt legs passed the opening by 5 meters. Over time, some were able to recalculate and find their way unerringly to the nest, while almost 50% never made the adjustment. Fascinating!

Okay, so now I place that information in my mental lockbox, and keep it safe for use in my writing at some point in the future. Which brings me to my point: even if you aren’t force-fed new knowledge as I am on a daily basis, as a writer you should make it your task to read outside of your knowledge base. Do the random Wiki reads, or pick up a book of facts and peruse its contents regularly. You never know what you’re going to find that will feed your imagination and give greater depth to your writing.

(For starters, if you’ve never read the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson start there.)