Day 12: Gesture “Drawings” of People

Ava Riley, challenger and author of erotic and paranormal romance novels, gives this writing tip:

Before I write I always have a picture (snatched from the internet) of what I think my main characters will look like.  I’m a visual person, so it helps tremendously.

If you haven’t played around with Google Images yet, it’s pretty phenomenal.  Today, try taking different faces (either through Google Images or through good old fashioned people watching) and practice writing character descriptions, arguably one of the more challenging aspects of writing yet.

To help you think through this process, here is Annie Proulx’s description of Quoyle from Shipping News.  Notice how she uses time (age six, age sixteen, etc) to characterize Quolye along with vivid simile and metaphor.

A great damp loaf of a body.  At six he weighed eighty pounds.  At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh.  Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back.  Features as bunched as kissed fingertips.  Eyes the color of plastic.  The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

And here’s a lovely one from Summer Wood’s Wrecker that uses both a comparison to another person as well as a character’s situation in order to get the image of the boy across:

The boy turned his face to him, and Len peered closely.  He hadn’t seen Lisa Fay since he’d married her sister fifteen years back, but there was something of the family resemblance in the snub nose, in the delicate oval curve of the chin.  There was little else that seemed delicate on this boy.  In spite of his small size he was robust and muscled.  His pale hair was cropped short and badly, and his corduroy pants were bunched by a belt at his waist, the elastic gone slack.  Kid had a right to look bedraggled, Len thought, yanked from his mother that young.  He had the right to look forlorn.  This boy didn’t look forlorn, he looked ferocious.

And here’s a first person description courtesy of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.  Note the way she begins with a comparison (a desire to look like Paul Newman), moves through self-criticism (I wish I was X), and finally ends by grounding the character and his appearance in a specific place (his neighborhood):

I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman–he looks tough and I don’t–but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad.  I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish-gray eyes. I wish they were more gray, because I hate most guys that have green eyes, but I have to be content with what I have.  My hair is longer than a lot of boys wear theirs, squared off in back and long at the front and sides, but I am a greaser and most of my neighborhood rarely bothers to get a haircut.  Besides, I look better with long hair.

Writing character descriptions is not easy, so don’t be afraid to practice.  Visual artists make gesture drawings while they sit in meetings or in class or in waiting rooms or coffee shop.  They’ll go to a room to collectively stand around in a circle and sketch naked people for hours.  Why not treat character descriptions in the same light?  And wouldn’t it be funny to show up at an Art Studio with a pen and paper and sit around and write?

5 thoughts on “Day 12: Gesture “Drawings” of People

  1. I LOVE the idea of showing up at an art class to “sketch” naked people 🙂
    Doing character description is especially hard in creative non-fiction for me, partly because I worry that how I characterize someone might somehow offend them

  2. Jenn, I’ll go if you’ll go! And as for characterization in nonfiction, the tricky part is that the way the writer describes other characters offers the reader all the more access to the character of the writer. We are defined by what we observe. (Don’t get me started!)

    P.S. Sam, I love the diversity of the examples you’ve used!

    • YES Marisa, how we describe others certainly tells the reader something about us….

      Thinking about this more, however, so much of characterization is about CHARACTER– not only how someone looks, but their actions and interactions and quirks. How much could one capture while studying a still (as in not-moving) naked person?

      Again, the post, the comments, all make me think. hmmmm.

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