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?

Day 5: the Aquarium of Place

Randi and I spent the weekend in Bloomington, Indiana.  Although I was born in Ohio, I’ve never spent much time in the Midwest, and I’m intrigued by the people here.  I’m not sure if these are Midwestern traits, but here are things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. Although a friendly city, when I talk to strangers, it confuses them.   Evidence:  Yesterday, in a (very crowded) coffee shop, I watched as two youngish men looked for a place to sit.  I was already packing my bags and I waved to them.  “You can have this spot,” I said.  They looked at me, confused by my waving.  “They look like they are leaving,” one said to the other.  And then they walked away.
  1. When people hand you something, they drop it into your palm. Evidence: Twice now, when receiving change for a twenty, the clerk has handed me the bills then dropped the coins into my hands.  (Think two-inch drop here).  Both times, the coins then rolled form my hand onto the countertop.
  1. On a game today, everyone wears the same red “Indiana University” t-shirts/sweaters/jackets.  With no variations on the theme.  Same bright red with white block letters scrawled over the chest. Evidence: Today, during lunch, we were the only people in the restaurant not wearing said apparel.
  1. Even though its cold as hell out here (35 degrees last time I checked), people don’t look cold.  Evidence:  Me, worried, to Randi: “If they aren’t acting like they’re cold, then this must not be very cold for them.”

These observations have gotten me thinking about the way characters/people are a product of the places where they live or visit or go.  Often people think about setting as something separate from people.  Setting as backdrop or as prop or a blue screen that can be interchanged with any image.  Instead, perhaps think of setting as a large aquarium.  If you put a creature in an aquarium, it behaves in a certain way because the environment is acting on it all the time.  Plants move because of the shifting water.  Bubbles float to the surface.  Fish sometimes hover, sometimes shift in and out of holes, or they swim in circles, sometimes alone or sometimes in crowded schools.  When we look into an aquarium, we rarely pay attention to the water, but without realizing it, we notice the way the water affects everything else. The setting/place of our writing, therefore, should not be something kept to the background, but should be an intrinsic part of the whole scene.  It should be reflected in and by every character in some way: not just the way they look and act, but also through the things that they notice and remember.

Here, for instance, is a passage from Annie Proulx’s Shipping NewsNotice how characters and place work together to create story:

Suddenly he could see his father, see the trail of ground cherry husks leading from the garden around the edge of the lawn where he walked while he ate them. The man had a passion for fruit. Quoyle remembered purple-brown seckle pears the size and shape of figs, his father taking the meat off with pecking bites, the smell of fruit in their house, litter of cores and peels in the ashtrays, the grape cluster skeletons, peach stones like hens’ brains on the windowsill, the glove of banana peel on the car dashboard. In the sawdust on the basement workbench galaxies of seeds and pits, cherry stones, long white date pits like spaceships. . . . The hollowed grapefruit skullcaps, cracked globes of tangerine peel.

Today, perhaps spend some time thinking about place. Where is this story/novel/essay/poem taking place?  Where is your character/narrator/speaker from? How do these two things intersect?  How do they create each other?  What do people do there?  What is the weather like, and how does the temperature affect their daily life?  Start with a brainstorm about a specific location and let it go into details about as many different people as you can imagine.  See how those details can add texture, tension, and meaning to your existing work.