Friday, November 26, 2010

So stick around, we may have a joke this week.

Introducing a new character is a delicate balancing act. You need to give readers enough information for them to get an unambiguous mental picture from the start, but you don't want to stop the story dead for three pages of backstory with each new arrival.

Does the suspect have a livid dueling scar down the side of his face that prevents his eyelid fully closing and permanently twists his lip into a humorless grimace? Tell us immediately. (Mainly so we can stop reading such a cliche-ridden tome right there.)

Does he have small, white, star-like scar from a childhood skating accident beneath the hairline on the back of his neck? Wait until the story of that event -- which you described so vividly in your 50-page preparatory mini-essay about the character -- becomes a crucial part of the plot. Oh, here's a clue: it won't.

Generally, the reader will fill in the basics of, say, height, age, build, race, so you'd better make sure there are no misunderstandings. (Although the immortal Sarah Caudwell went through four staggeringly witty books holding back one essential fact about her first-person protagonist, Professor Hilary Tamar. And it's intriguing to see how far you get into your first Caudwell novel -- do start with Thus Was Adonis Murdered -- before you realize your mental image of Tamar is entirely based on your biased assumption, not on the text.)

But one of the  dullest ways to give this essential information is the "identikit" approach -- plainly listing height, weight, hair, eye-color, etc. How much better to nail all that with one line that plants the mental image instantly and economically.

Hoagy, not Stokely
Ian Fleming describes James Bond as looking a little like a cold and ruthless Hoagy Carmichael, and that's all you need -- as long as you have some idea what Hoagy Carmichael looks like. (Confuse him with Stokely Carmichael and you could have some problems.)

One step further is to find a shorthand account of a person's appearance that also helps establish character. From Wodehouse (of course): "He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'"

And to get back to this post's title, that's why I really liked this stray line from last week's "Saturday Night Live," describing Nancy Pelosi: "A woman who always looks like she's watching someone not use a coaster." I wish I'd written that.


  1. I took my cue from Jane Austen- she included very little physical description of characters (beyond "pretty" or "well-grown")and yet I have no problem picturing any of them. I never listed Tory's weight in the mysteries- she just said that she was heavy, and we both let readers fill in the blanks (and it was interesting to see how they did that- some people's notion of fat is pretty darn thin).

  2. I think the reader's subjective interpretation of "heavy" is much more like to get the effect you want than if you were more specific as to poundage.

  3. I loved the description of Bond in "Live and Let Die," that he could have passed for an American, except with the ladies, (apropos of your earlier post on circumcision.)