Monday, May 4, 2009

Character Sketches

One skill I find very difficult is describing characters. Especially minor characters who grab center stage for a very brief time. A waitress, for example, who occupies the main character in a brief conversation or the next door neighbor who pops in and out of chapters but never sticks around longer than a paragraph or so.

Part of the challenge, I think, is balance. A writer wants to offer enough of a description so that the reader has a basic picture of who this character is and what she's like. But at the same time, the description shouldn't clutter up the narrative with a lot of unnecessary details. The last thing a writer wants is for his readers to silently say, "Enough already! I've got the picture."

To help myself improve this skill, I've started doing what I think of as 'word caricatures' of people. I'm sure you've all seen caricaturists: artists who set up shop at carnivals and shopping malls and draw cartoonish likenesses of their customers. They pick out a few distinguishing details of their subjects and then drawing them at lightening speed. (My husband and I once had one done at a bar and the result was funny yet amazingly recognizable.)

I work on my caricatures as I'm waiting in line in the grocery store or the bank or wherever. I watch the other people and attempt to mentally describe one or two specific details that set them apart from the crowd. (Please note, that I never intend to be cruel or judgmental. I simply try to capture what I see.)

For example, last week, while I was helping out in my daughter's elementary school, I saw two little girls with long-sleeved black shirts. Both girls had long, gray streaks of dried mucus on their sleeves where they had used their shirts as tissues to wipe their runny noses. This, I think, is a very arresting detail that would work well to implant a minor character in the reader's mind.

Another example came today when I was at the gas station. The elderly man behind me in line walked with a cane. The attendant was a teenager with jeans that sagged well below the waistband of his boxers. When the elderly man stepped up to the window to pay for his gas, the teenager grinned widely and said, "Hey, Mr. X. How's my yo' boy?"

Again, these are very brief examples of people, but brevity is what's needed. You don't want to flood your readers with a lot of details; you want to keep them focused. But because minor characters often play important parts in the narrative, they deserve some sparkle, too.