DESCRIPTION THAT REVEALS CHARACTER AND THEME
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
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" Ayn Rand wrote scenes like nobody else, full of exacting description that nails the characters and themes. . .
Recently I picked up Ayn Rand’s seven hundred page and counting Fountainhead to reread. What was I doing reading that book when I was thirteen? What understanding had I had of Dominique Francon telling Howard Roark, “Take me like a whore?” And what had I known about Rand’s theories of architecture, how society treats true genius, and all the other themes she covers? Anyway, when I picked the book up again, I saw why so much of it was still vivid to me—Ayn Rand wrote scenes like nobody else, full of exacting description that nails the characters and themes and stays in your mind even when you’re not consciously thinking about the book.
She fashions her characters as symbols of the meaning she assigns them, the role they play in the novel, yet they live and breathe on the page. When she introduces the spurned genius architect, Howard Roark, she describes him as she would a building. .
“His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. He stood, rigid, hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, the weight of his blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of a ripe orange.”
What a figure Roark cuts–a living edifice.
Here is her description of Peter Keating, the architect who, unlike Roark, is seeking everyone’s approval and will do anything to get it. He’s just graduated architectural school with for banal work granted by banal professors: Notice how her description of him infers his character, his motives, right off:
“Then he (Peter) was shaking hands, scratching the perspiration off his face with the end of a rolled parchment, nodding, smiling, suffocating in his black gown and hoping people would notice his mother sobbing with her arms about him….A great deal was said about Keating’s final project—A Palace of Fine Arts. For the life of him, Keating could not remember for the moment what the project was.”
Keating is suffocating in his gown as he is in his life, which is based on shining in the public eye, regardless of how.
Gail Wynand (yes, back then men were called Gail), the owner of The Banner, a newspaper that sets the taste of New York, stamping out anything of true worth. It’s not that Wynand doesn’t know better, but he grew up hardscrabble and controlled by ignorant people as Roark had. Instead of being completely unaffected by public taste, Wynand caters to the worst in people in order to get power over them, something Roark cares nothing about. Each character plays off of the central idea that the threat of true genius can be stamped out by rallying for mediocrity.
Here’s a glimpse of the charismatic Wynand, who can woo crowds of women with his voice, in his office.
“Standing at a tall desk, a big blue pencil in his hand, he wrote on a huge sheet of plain print stock, in letters an inch high, a brilliant, ruthless editorial denouncing all advocates of careers for women.”
". . . but there are times when we see how much pain he is in from trying to crush anyone who might outdo him . . ."
Boo, hiss. The villain, but there are times when we see how much pain he is in from trying to crush anyone who might outdo him in any pursuit at all because our very first introduction to him is “Gail Wynand raised a gun to his forehead.”
Another villain, Ellsworth M. Toohey, wants everyone to be interchangeable. Geniuses such as Howard Roark are a threat that must be stamped out. And with a name as spit-ball like as Toohey, Rand shows just what she thinks of him.
From the get-go, we see how the heroine, Dominique Francon, plays off the theme of society’s suppression of genius. She’s cold, icy cold, and bored, suppressing the brilliance inside her. Watch how this comes across in this initial glance, everything implied:
“She stood leaning against a column, a cocktail glass in her hand. She wore a suit of black velvet; the heavy cloth, which transmitted no light rays, held her anchored to reality by stopping the light that flowed too freely through the flesh of her hands, neck, face. A white spark of fire flashed like a metallic cross in the glass she held, as if it were a lens gathering the diffused radiance of her skin.”
". . . you have to know your theme and each major character needs to play off that theme in a different way . . ."
The things to come away with is that you have to know your theme and each major character needs to play off that theme in a different way, and each word written about them, each line of dialogue and description, needs to reflect that theme and the character’s reaction to it.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and the sequel Kaylee's Ghost (RJS Books.) She has published in the NYT (Lives), Newsweek, Moment, and many literary magazines. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/