Notes on writing

Portraits in words

Charles Baudelaire

A couple of novels I read recently got me thinking about character descriptions. From my own reading, admittedly a small sample size, I have the impression that fiction writers are making their character descriptions much more frugal than used to be the case. No doubt we’ve all read those nineteenth-century novels where the author begins at the top, with the hair, and then work their way down the person’s body to the shoes. Good riddance to all that — or most of it anyway. Still, the best writers are capable of not just describing the character’s appearance in a vivid and intriguing way, but of revealing the personality too, as it is expressed in the body and its trappings. To go back to those two novels I mentioned at the start, here’s an extract from Rosamond Lehmann’s 1927 novel, Dusty Answer:

Roddy scarcely ever spoke. He had a pale, flat face and yellow-brown eyes with a twinkling light remote at the back of them. He had a ruffled dark shining head and a queer smile that you watched for because it was not like anyone else’s. His lip lifted suddenly off his white teeth and then turned down at the corner in a bitter-sweet way. When you saw it you said ‘Ah!’ to yourself, with a little pang, and stared, — it was so queer. He had a trick of spreading out his hands and looking at them —, brown broad hands with long crooked fingers that were magical when they held a pencil and could draw anything. He had another trick of rubbing his eyes with his fist like a baby, and that made you say ‘Ah!’ too, with a melting, quick sort of pang, wanting to touch him. His eyes fluttered in a strong light: they were weak and set so far apart that, with their upward sweep, they seemed to go round the corners and, seen in profile, set in his head like a funny bird’s. He reminded you of something fabulous — a Chinese fairy story. He was thin and odd and graceful; and there was a suggestion about him of secret animals that go about by night.

Now that kind of writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and Lehmann was certainly what is nowadays called a ‘literary’ writer, but I think it’s wonderful. What reader wouldn’t feel they knew Roddy, even a little, after reading that? And part of my point is that even ‘literary’ writers of the present age, at least the ones I read, don’t go in for that kind of detailed character description.

Compare and contrast John D MacDonald in his 1965 book The Deep Blue Goodbye, incidentally the first to feature his best-known protagonist, Travis McGee:

She was a tall and slender woman, possibly in her early thirties. Her skin had the extraordinary fineness of grain, and the translucence you see in small children and fashion models. In her fine long hands, delicacy of wrists, floating texture of dark hair, and in the mobility of the long narrow sensitive structuring of her face there was the look of something almost too well made, too highly bred, too finely drawn for all the natural crudities of human existence. Her eyes were large and very dark and tilted and set widely. She wore dark Bermuda shorts and sandals and a crisp blue and white blouse, no jewellery of any kind, a sparing touch of lipstick.

Now I’m not comparing like with like here. Lehmann’s description, or her protagonist’s, is written from long acquaintance. MacDonald’s description, or his protagonist’s, is written on first meeting. And MacDonald, being a writer in the crime genre, is also briefer. But I think his portrait in words is just as telling, just as nuanced, just vivid, on its own terms.

I expect that many writers would say that readers these days don’t have the patience for it. They may be right. I wonder also if many writers don’t have the patience for it either, by which I mean the patience to really imagine a character and what they are like. Those of us who write genre fiction know the importance of driving the story forward, of not wasting words, of not dwelling on details that are not significant to plot turns and polarity shifts. There is also, I think, a view that ‘something should be left to the reader’s imagination’, that, to use engineering language, the solution should not be over-specified. Modern literary theory is pretty adamant in its view that the reader is the co-creator of the text.

I wonder too if our predominantly visual culture may have something to do with it. We all have minds full of images, still and moving, far more so than I would guess Lehmann did and probably more than MacDonald did too. It is easy enough for a writer to provide a few visual prompts and for a reader to pick them up and merge them into a character from film or televisions that already inhabits their thoughts. I’ve even heard some writers say that they cast their characters, that they imagine who would play the part if the book was turned into a movie. Perhaps, whether consciously or unconsciously, once an actor is fixed in their mind they feel less inclined to describe them fully.

These reflections have made me realise how much I need to improve my own character descriptions. I doubt I’ll ever go the whole Lehmann, so to speak, but even in genre fiction there is room for more detail and more nuance than I’m currently achieving, as MacDonald so stylishly demonstrates. Note to self: be patient and really imagine the people you’re writing about.

[The image at the top of this post is John Sokol’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire using lines from Les Fleurs du Mal.]