Monday, January 28, 2008

Characters in Just a Few Brushstrokes

James Wood notes in the Guardian muses about what characters are and on the way they may be "brought to life", in a fascinating piece that draws on a whole range of literary examples.

He notes that:
Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking ...
... an assertion that Jane Sullivan in the Age would no doubt agree with. Sullivan writes about how writers describe their characters appearance, and reckons that a little description goes a long way and she quotes Lynne Truss writing in the Guardian talking about how description should be
... done glancingly. She quotes Anton Chekhov in The Lady With The Little Dog ("He remembered her slender, weak neck, her beautiful grey eyes") ; Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye ("He had thick, dark, wavy hair. He was tanned very dark. He looked up with bird-bright eyes and smiled under a hairline moustache. His tie was a dark maroon tied in a pointed bow over a sparkling white shirt"); and Sarah Waters in The Night Watch ("Her features were dark and still vivid with youth"). ... All these descriptions ... are offered as "mere corner-of-the-eye glances, mere hints, which the reader is free to ignore: both writer and reader seem to agree that it's better to offer an impression of a bird-bright eye or a significant pallor than to attempt an exhaustive inventory of an imagined set of features".
She offers more fascinating examples, including the descriptions of the two young men in Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain - the most unlikely protagonists for what is undoubtedly one of the most moving love stories of our time. (Beautiful, now-lost-to-us Heath Ledger was much prettier than Proulx intended her character to be.)

I'd say that all three of these pieces are necessary reading if you are trying to wrestle characters of your own to the page. And if you haven't heard of too many of the books being referred to, time perhaps to dig 'em out. (Sorry ... playing bossy teacher.)

1 comment:

Greenbottle said...

very true.

and i remember this one article in the 'rolling stones' many years back about cock fighting in the philippines and this writer described this champion cock that looks exactly like eddie van halen.

i thought that's a nice ay to describe a fowl.