Bad Advice Wednesday: The Character Files

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Notes in the dark at a movie, then put through the wash, all on the way to my new novel...

It may be a legacy of minimalism, or of a misreading of so-called minimalists like Raymond Carver, but in so much of the work of new writers, both fiction and nonfiction, characters get almost no, um, characterization.  There’s a lot in a name, Shakespeare notwithstanding, but a name is often all we get to go on, that and a voice, if there’s dialogue, sometimes not even a name.  I like a writer who lingers over a character, especially at first appearance, but only if the lingering is deft and vivid and puts a person in front of me.  Even better I like a writer who captures some essential, unforgettable thing about her character in a line, nothing to slow the action down, but everything to make the action interesting.

Susan Minot’s minimal, but gets the job done, cast of thousands: “Mum knuckles the buttons of Chicky’s snow suit till he’s knot-tight, crouching, her heels lifted out of the back of her shoes, her nylons creased at the ankles.  She wears a black lace veil that says on her hair like magic.  Sherman ripples by, coat flapping, and Mum grabs him by the hood, reeling him in, and zips him up with a pinch at his chin.  Gus stands there with his bottom lip out, waiting, looking like someone’s smacked him except not that hard.  Even though he’s seven, he still wants Mum to do him up.  Delilah comes half-hurrying down the stairs, late, looking like a ragamuffin with her skirt slid down to her hips and her hair all slept on wrong.  Caitlin says, ‘It’s about time.’ Delilah sweeps along the curve of the banister, looks at Caitlin, who’s all ready to go herself with her pea jacket on and her loafers and bare legs, and tells her, ‘You’re going to freeze.’  Everyone’s in a bad mood because we just woke up.”

Look at the arsenal here: not only adjectives, some of them original constructions, but also verbs and similes and rhythms and attitudes and voices and clothes.

Now here’s Melanie Rae Thon, bringing her character Iona Moon into view through the eyes of a couple of teenage boys, opening of chapter three in the eponymous novel: “Willy Hamilton never did like Iona Moon, not when they were kids and not now that they were sophomores in high school.  He said country girls always had shit on their shoes and he could smell her after she’d been in his car.”

Note that the description is really more about the boy whose second-hand thoughts we’re getting: we’re seeing and smelling Iona Moon, but the boys come into view, too, and kind of stink themselves.

Or, in Down the Nile, recent nonfiction about her solo rowing trip down the Nile (!), Rosemary Mahoney evokes a crowd of children with great economy, even while lingering over them generously, once again deploying a full range of strategies:   “As I stumbled through Aswan, dozens of barefoot, cinnamon-skinned children trailed me.  Dressed in little more than ragged dishtowels, they were big-eyed, auburn-haired, seemingly weightless, and irresistibly beautiful in the rickety, knock-kneed way that newborn calves are beautiful.  They had flies in their eyes, and noses running with snot.  They had long, curling eyelashes and narrow shoulders and tiny, dusty ankles.  They wanted money, pens, and candy.  ‘Hello, baksheesh!’ they shrieked.  ‘Hello, pen!  Hello, bonbon!’  They trailed after me sometimes for ten minutes, emitting jagged moans of entreaty, twisting their faces into little Greek masks of tragedy, dancing on the hot stones, and plucking at my hips until I gave them something.”

So the advice is to write like that.

But of course, it’s not that easy.  So here’s an idea: as you work on your novel or memoir or story or book-length nonfiction, or even screenplay or drama or form not yet invented, keep character files.

For every character, major and minor, a file.

And spend one of those writing mornings when you can’t quite get it going in the pursuit of deft lines and phrases and visions and gestures that you might later use or adjust to bring your people to life in front of readers.

Okay?  You’ve got a story with nine people in it.  Start with the bus driver, who’s just there for a paragraph, his only function getting the main character to school while bumming her out.  What’s he look like?  Write paragraph after paragraph, the kind of stuff that will never fit in the story, not even a maximalist’s story.  From those paragraphs, glean your best lines, and start again, more paragraphs.  Give the guy verbs, not only adjectives.  He bustles that bus through the streets of Dorcester.  Not so good?  Try again.  He weaves, he trundles, he groans that bus.  Until you get it right.  And glean again, and start again.  What’s he smell like?  What’s he sound like when he talks?  What would his skin feel like if you kissed his cheek?

(When I say what’s he smell like, note that even unconsciously, in using one of the common phrases of our language, I’m asking for a simile.)

Now what’s this about kissing his cheek?  Why is my character thinking of kissing his cheek?  Oh-oh—description begets story.

Glean and start again.

Bus driver gets his own file on your computer or in your cabinet.

Then to the next character—the main character, say.  She’s tall and ungainly and falls like a tree.  No?  Keep going.  Write and write and write.  Glean.  Get her right.  Get her right again and again and again.  What movie is she going to?  What kind of shoes does she hate?  What’s that spot on her blouse?

Because in the course of a story, and moreso in a novel or long nonfiction, we need to drop deft lines about our characters every time they come onstage.  Some morsels might be repeated, reminders for the reader to pay attention to her height, say, but more will be fresh views, like you’re turning the gem, new facets to admire or abhor.  It’s like meeting someone, getting your impression, then seeing him or her again.  Oh.  That’s a scar on his eyebrow.  He walks like a, like a, like a….  Like a scissors.  Like pinking shears.  I don’t know.

And fill that file, which will fill your mind in such a way that you may need never turn back to the file.  Then again, writers get stuck, and it’s nice to review your person’s file when that happens.  Oh yeah, that driver’s cheek…

For nonfiction, a good system is to fill several pages of notebook the minute you leave your person’s side, trying to catch that person’s essence.  I mean, if you have access to the person, since for memoirists, our characters may well be dead.  Or at least far away.  Or not speaking to us.  So, fill the file from a daydream of the person.

And a good exercise when no project is in progress is to try to capture friends and family and this or that stranger or an actor or really anybody at all: pull out your notebook and try for deft phrases.

In the end, you’ll get good at it, and just write the tumbling paragraph you need when you need it, sharpened tools purchased, paid for, and at your disposal.

  1. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Practice, practice, practice anywhere, anytime. I love this idea of making it simple. Sketch anyone in words. Refine, revise. Every minute counts towards those magic 10,000 hours!

    Forgive me, for a proud mama minute. My youngest son, Greg, qualified for Olympic Trials last week in the 50-meter freestyle at the national swimming championships in CA. He’s a D-3 kid who never swam year-round before he turned 23. He’s showing me what it means to chase your dreams and not worry about failing… Can’t sing it halfway!! No more whining from me.

    • Bill writes:

      Hi Susan–Good for Greg, wow. The great thing about writing is we can peak when we’re seventy or even eighty, when our athletic careers are distant memories…

  2. monica wood writes:

    Bill, happy birthday, August 18!
    Lookin’ good, babe!!!

  3. Mardi Link writes:

    You are psychic! Just started a new memoir about a long-time friendship between eight women. Character files! Love it. Many thanks for this workable and sane idea. Let the files begin . . .

    • Bill writes:

      I am psychic, it’s true. I dreamed you were writing this memoir (great success, by the way, first Pulitzer in memoir), but with only seven women, then I realized I hadn’t counted you. With eight women, long-time friends, you might need a bin system…

  4. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Pardon my unrelated comment. It looks like your “subscribe” button is not working. I just tried it, and no luck. No worries; I love the B&D page and check back frequently. However, you may want to fix it for new folks coming through Facebook.

  5. Mike writes:

    “So the advice is to write like that.” Golden.

    Well-chosen passages and exercises, with the usual appropriate levity. I’d share some of my favorites, but I’ve got to go work on my exercises now.