Saturday, May 22, 2010
Let the characters describe themselves
While reading Flannery O’Connor’s "A Good Man is Hard to Find" recently, I tried to pay attention to how she described her characters. She was so good at describing characteristics and mannerisms without slowing the pace of her stories.
For example, this description of the rich old farmer, Mr. Cheatam in the short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”:
“He was bald-headed except for a little fringe of rust-colored hair and his face was nearly the same color as the unpaved roads and washed like them with ruts and gullys. He wore a pale green shirt with a thin black stripe in it and blue galluses and his trousers cut across a protruding stomach that he pressed tenderly from time to time with his big flat thumb. All his teeth were backed with gold and he would roll his eyes at Miss Kirby in an impish way and say ‘Haw haw,’ sitting in their porch swing with his legs spread apart and his hightopped shoes pointing in opposite directions on the floor.”
Mr. Cheatam was courting Miss Kirby, and that was the extent of his role in the story. I was struck by how O’Connor kept this description anchored securely to the plot. I would have been tempted to give a sentence or two of back-story. Was Mr. Cheatam a widower? Did he inherit his money or build up his fortune? He was not a central character; he never even appeared in the story outside of others talking about him. To include that information would have painted a fuller picture, but it was unnecessary to the plot, so she never let the description get off the front porch.
O’Connor also found comparisons that were pertinent to the lifestyle of the character. His face was “nearly the same color as the unpaved roads and washed like them with ruts and gullys.” It wasn’t “creased like a poorly folded map in the glovebox” or “rutted like the bark on an old Maple.” Although their faces might be similar, my first description would better suit a trucker or traveling salesman, perhaps. The second, a woodsman, maybe, or a botanist. O’Connor’s description fit his environment perfectly (and “washed” was an awesome verb there).
When I write, I usually describe my characters from the perspective of Matt rather than letting the setting, tone, circumstances and characters themselves dictate the language.