Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Character descriptions

For those of you who think I've been neglecting my blog, I have good reason. I've been thinking.

I've been rereading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and enjoying how the characters simply leap of the page.  Atticus believes that shielding his kids in the short term doesn't do them any favors in the long run. This becomes especially clear when he thinks Jem is the one who stabbed Bob Ewell. It tells us so much about the man. 

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I don't want my boy starting out with something like this over his head. Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open. Let the county come and bring sandwiches. I don't want him growing up with a whisper about him, I don't want anybody saying, 'Jem Finch... his daddy paid a mint to get him out of that.' Sooner we get this over with the better." 

A fine example of how we learn about character from what they say.

The following extract comes from James Lee Burke's PEGASUS DESCENDING, and describes a district attorney, Lonnie Marceaux. In just two paragraphs we find out about Lonnie's appearance, educational level, intelligence, ambition and personal habits:

After lunch, she and I met with our district attorney, Lonnie Marceaux. When I first met Lonnie a few years ago, I had thought he was one of those people whose attention span is limited either by an inability to absorb detailed information or a lack of interest in subject matter that isn't directly related to their well-being. I was wrong. At least partially. Lonnie was usually three or four jumps ahead in the conversation. He had been Phi Beta Kappa at Tulane and had published in the Stanford Law Review. But the real content of his thoughts on any particular issue remained a matter of conjecture.

Lonnie was blade-faced, six and one half feet tall, and had a body like whipcord from the marathons he ran in New Orleans, Dallas, and Boston. His scalp glistened through his crew cut; his energies were augmented rather than diminished by the two hours a day he spent on a StairMaster. When he turned down a position as United States Attorney in Baton Rouge, his peers were amazed at his sudden diffidence. But it didn't take us long to see the true nature of Lonnie's ambitious design. In spite of his own upscale background, he charmed blue-collar juries. The press always referred to Lonnie as "charismatic" and "clean-cut". No high-profile case in Iberia Parish ever went to an ADA, and God help the man or woman Lonnie got in his bomb sights. He was on his way up in the sweet sewer of Louisiana politics and I believe had long ago decided it was better to be first in Gaul rather than second in Rome.

Long descriptive paragraphs are out of style, but there is something to be said about being told about a character. 

Look at when long descriptions were the style, an example from the beginning of GONE WITH THE WIND: 

SCARLETT O'HARA was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin. 

It is a beautiful bit of writing, but I wonder, if all she needed was that first line.

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