Nailing a Character in a Few Whacks of the Hammer

February 27, 2013
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NAILING A CHARACTER IN A FEW WHACKS OF THE HAMMER

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

March 2013

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

"One way is to tag a character, that is, give them some piece of dialogue or gesture that he uses regularly."
—Shapiro

Reading Yona Zeldis Mc Donough’s novel, A Wedding in Great Neck (NAL, 2012), I was blown away by how, with so many characters in the book, I could remember each one as vividly as cherished photos in my family album.

How did she achieve this? How can we?

One way is to tag a character, that is, give them some piece of dialogue or gesture that he uses regularly. For example, Ennis, the bride’s Irish brother -in-law, (or is he Scottish?) usually ends his sentences with “hey?” and he aggravates Gretchen, his wife from whom he’s separated by saying oot for out even though he’s been in the States for so many years. This gives me such a sense of him that I don’t even have to know his physical description to picture him.

A tag can be anything you begin to associate with a character. The grandmother of the bride, Lenore, has a beauty parlor bubble of blonde hair, but what I associate with her most is her obsession with breasts. She made her small empire by opening custom bra shops, still owning three in her eighties. We can count on her to worry if one of her brood isn’t wearing the right bra under her formal gown, or even informal sweater. In fact, we look forward to it.

When Gretchen, the bride’s older and malcontent sister (doesn’t her name rhyme so well with kvetch?) sets eyes on her grandmother, Lenore, she thinks “There was her grandmother Lenore swathed—that was really the word for it, really—in a ruffled pink garment whose enormous collar—seemingly borrowed from a clown costume—made her head, with its shellacked blonde waves appear small and doll-like.” We not only see Lenore in the moment, we can imagine her throughout the book in whatever she has on. She’s a distinctive type, of whom my own mother would probably have said, “Once they made her, they threw away the mold.”

Even if you don’t know exactly what color eyes someone has, you can know him or her by their general appearance, their quirks. This is especially effective when seen through the eyes of another character rather than the old “looking at myself in the mirror, I saw…looking back at me.” Lincoln, the former alcoholic, the former husband of Betsy, mother of the bride, describes his exes new husband, Don, “in his hot-pink Ralph Lauren sweater (a six-foot-four, three-hundred-plus-pound guy in hot pink? Who knew they even made the damn sweaters, with their damn little ponies dancing across the nipple, so big?” You not only get a picture of Don, but of Lincoln’s malice toward him. Two characters nailed in a description.

"Mc Donough seizes on the specific, yet unusual to impress the character into the reader’s mind. "
—Shapiro

Mc Donough seizes on the specific, yet unusual to impress the character into the reader’s mind. Not the usual hair color, eye color, height you always read. When Lincoln sees his youngest son, Caleb, he describes him as “deeply, unnaturally tan and wearing an expensive-looking blue and white striped shirt…and a pair of artfully weathered jeans. Keds so white they must have been artificially bleached, no socks, hair slicked back from his high forehead with some kind of gel.” We not only know about Caleb’s appearance, but his character, too, in his overly-stylized appearance that must cost him plenty of money and time. When Mc Donough does mention eye and hair color, it’s always with some odd detail that would set the person apart, fix them in your mind, even a minor character such as the rabbi that performed the wedding. “He was dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and possessed a serious unibrow.” No matter how many pages we turned until the rabbi was mentioned again, we’d know him.

 

"Even if your fiction isn’t comic, it’s a fine idea to have one character describe another."
—Shapiro

Even if your fiction isn’t comic, it’s a fine idea to have one character describe another. And find distinctive characteristics for each instead of giving the usual statistics. Also, anything habitual about a character can become a tag, all of which will help the reader know the character and remember him or her long after the book is closed or the e-reader unpowered.

About
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/

 

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