Saturday, September 1, 2012

Of Rembrandt and Beatrix Potter

Jenny challenged us this afternoon to write a post about the way we describe our characters. After reading her bits of description I felt a tad disheartened about my own. I don't do amazing. But Jenny raised a proverbial eyebrow at me and gave me this piece of advice:
"I ask for all your Rembrandts and your Beatrix Potters. There is something lovely in each of them."
So of course when she put it that way I had to comply. I rummaged through Fly Away Home and brought out a few pieces of description that weren't too shabby to see the face of the public, and now you will read them and judge for yourself.
The first rule of describing your protagonist is not to use the Mirror Trick. At least, not right away.Sometimes you can't avoid the mention of a mirror throughout the entire course of the plot, but by all means save it till the end. Or the middle. Or something reasonably far from looking like a crutch. The Mirror Trick is that handy, cliched way of showing what your main character looks like by showing them looking at their reflection in the mirror. But how--especially in a first-person novel--do you get around that? I attempted one method in this bit about Callie:

I grabbed a handful of my dark, wavy hair and squeezed it between my fingers. How was my perm holding up? Drat. Split-ends. Time for a trim again. It cost far too much, I’d decided, going to the beauty parlor twice a week to get my hair styled. I just couldn’t afford it—people died often enough, but obituaries don’t pay that well. Consequently I looked like Elizabeth Taylor sopping wet and run through a wringer.

Here you get a bit of Callie's quick wit, her sense of humor, her habitat (1950's) and her appearance. Not too bad, really. My next task was describing Mr. Barnett. I did a very blunt description at the start where Callie reminds herself that she {along with every other young lady in America} has memorized his face. He's famous after all! But along the way I've managed to drop other observations into his character and appearance while avoiding the commonplace:
Mr. Barnett laughed—it matched the elbows of his coat: shiny, worn, genuine 
That bit is, perhaps, one of my favorite pieces of description about Mr. Barnett in the book. I myself treasure laughter so knowing what a person's laugh sounds like is really important to me. Also, those three words totally describe Mr. Barnett's personality, his history, and his coat all in one smack. Eyes are windows to the soul. That's why I can't stand talking to someone wearing sunglasses. But sometime's one can glimpse too much of a good things, as Callie experiences early on in their relationship:
He shifted and bent to look into my eyes. I tried to hold his gaze but it was too open and honest for me. I saw hopes written there, and dreams. I saw a soul and it troubled me. I preferred the cold glaze so much of Manhattan wore—it saved one the trouble being hurt.
But if eyes are good then tone of voice is even more fun to play with. I do like this one line:
"My voice had horns and callouses and was hot to the touch."
...I can picture exactly what that voice sounds like. But moving on. Of course, I managed to get Callie to give me an assessment of Mr. Barnett in one fell swoop. It was rather clever of me, because Callie is not exactly a helpful, suppliant person you'll understand.

Ladybird Snippets. I like it. What do you think?”
What did I think? I sipped my coffee so I wouldn’t have to answer yet. I thought it was a name that perfectly fit my growing picture of Mr. Barnett:  old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, and pretty darn cute.

And then we come to the side-line characters who I love describing. I go by the rule that every character--whether he's a cabby, a doorman, a deli-man, or the printer--ought to have their moment of fame. You have opportunities to make even these shadows memorable by giving them a bit of interest of their own. I am very fond of Annamaria: an Italian baker who once had views of being an opera-singer before she gave it up for a family and children. I'll end with the scene when she and Callie meet for the first time:

...It was then she caught sight of me. “Ahhhh!” (There was a world of meaning in that “ahh” and its accompanying sweep of my person.) “You bringa your pretty girlfriend for lunch, no?”
I examined the clippings on the wall and pretended like I hadn’t heard. Still, from the corner of my eyes I studied Mr. Barnett. He appeared as composed as usual. “No, no, Annamaria—she’s my assistant. I’ve started a new job and she and I are out to change the world.” He motioned for me to come closer and I obeyed—a new sensation of shyness creeping over me.
Annamaria wiped her hands on her apron and shook her head at Mr. Barnett. “Assistant, girlfriend—bah! She’s still beautiful.”
I kept my eyes on the floor, but Annamaria’s thick forefinger was under my chin in a moment and she lifted my head so that I looked into her face. It was broad and good-humored, and red as the roses in her cotton-print dress. She wore little gold hoops in her ears, and when she smiled her teeth were parted in the middle. I found her delightful, and I suppose she approved of me, for she startled me by planting a hearty kiss on either of my cheeks and patting my back. “You helpa heem, no?”
“Yes ma’am, I do.”
“And what’sa your name?”
“Calida Harper, ma’am.”
“Calllida Harper.” She tasted the name, trilling the “l” as if she savored it. Then she chuckled. “Eet sounds like an opera-singer name. Very good—I like-a you.” With that, Annamaria squeezed back behind the counter and continued her work.


Abigail Hartman said...

Oh, tut and pshaw, Rachel, your descriptions are lovely! I'm especially like the clip beginning with "Ladybird Snippets": "old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, and pretty darn cute." Adorable!

I also like how you got around the difficulty of describing Callie. I confess, even while I mentioned the cliched-ness of mirror scenes in my own blog post, I have one in the very almost-first paragraph of Tempus Regina. It isn't actually a description, though, and the point was the mirror, not the character, so I say - bother rules! It must be done!

I'm tickled that my post spawned so many of these description-snippets. Also, "spawned" is a very odd word.

Kendra E. Ardnek said...

I'm going to have to do this ... but, sigh, I consider descriptions my weak point, especially when it comes to characters.

Yours are splendid, I must say!

Jenny Freitag said...

"Mr. Barnett laughed - it matched the elbows of his coat: shiny, worn, genuine."

I LIKE it! Good golly, I like it! And "My voice had horns and callouses and was hot to the touch" - my dear girl, you said you're not all flash and bang and thunder-fisted like I am with words, but that's bosh. You are certainly more accustomed to the gentle touch of gingham than I may ever be, pale, domestic-printed aprons and Green Gables' kitchens may be your more regular haunts, but you're no stranger to fire and spice, let me tell you!

" 'Ladybird Snippets.' I like it. What do you think?"
What did I think? I sipped my coffee so I wouldn't have to answer yet. I thought it was a name that perfectly fit my growing picture of Mr. Barnett: old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, and pretty darn cute.

Shoo...! By the twelve houses, this is superb!

Rachel Heffington said...

Abigail--I am glad you approve because I think you and I are one in the sense that we both like a bit of well-done adorableness...and Mr. Barnett is a man entirely tailored to my taste in that respect. Well, if the *mirror* is the point and not a slap-job of description, than by all that's decent I say let's have a mirror!

Kendra: Thank you! I find the best remedy for lack of description is reading some good ones! Take a favorite book and rummage through it for ideas.

Jenny: I take you praise as a very high compliment and thank you for it. I am glad both you and Abigail enjoyed that bit about "Ladybird Snippets" because when *two* authors admire it, I feel pretty certain it ought to stay. And "by the twelve houses" is such a good oath, and such a strange one I must beg leave to ask you: are you quoting from your own work there? Perhaps an oath used by those in the honourlands?

Anne-girl said...

I think I just realized that I don't really describe my characters. Well I'm off to hunt for to see if maybe I do. Lovely lady-bits Rachel. Especially the laugh one. You r writing is so warm. Cozy.

Miss Dashwood said...

What a delightful laugh-description! I find it so hard to put laughs into words, because after all a laugh ISN'T a word at all (thank you, my dear). But I love Mr. Barnett's, and him too for that matter. Shiny, warm and genuine. Yes indeedy.

The Elizabeth Taylor comparison in the first bit made me giggle and gave me the perfect mental image--which is, in short, what I think it was meant to do. Success!

nope said...

I like those little snippets of writing. Very descriptive!

Rachel said...

"I ask for all your Rembrandts and your Beatrix Potters. There is something lovely in each of them." - you're right! Now I feel better about my own writings. It's nice to be different. ;)

Thank you for sharing your writings - I'm not a fiction writer so to me to watch someone be able to craft and create pictures in someone's mind with words is such a beautiful talent to have. :D Splendid darling!

{Hugs} Love you!