This is part 3 of a 5-part series, Transform your travel writing.

WE LOOKED EARLIER at how narrators describe (or fail to describe) other characters in their stories. To review, the most skilled writers “introduce” characters in ways that:

  1. Give context, explaining how that character fits into the scene
  2. Express emotion, giving a sense of the narrator’s impressions of a character (which can set up powerful opportunities for these impressions to evolve through future interaction)
  3. Give physical details that register on a sensory level
  4. Are built around interaction and dialogue, not just telling how the character is, but portraying them through an exchange

Today we’re going to focus on #3, physical details, and look at how, when presented carefully, they can lead to other layers, particularly expressing emotion.

So often, the physicality of a character is presented almost like a tag, something totally superficial. For example:

The bartender was tall, tattooed, and wore a bowler cap.

While these physical details do give us something to imagine (they’re at least one step beyond the total cardboard cutout “smiling taxi driver” or “weatherbeaten fisherman”), they still do not give any true associative information from the narrator. Can you tell from this sentence if the narrator is alienated by the bartender? Admiring? Intimidated by him?

In other words, these details do not give us a clear sense of the narrator’s first impression. But what if the narrator can add a simple association that portrays what he or she was thinking at the time? Ex:

The bartender was tall, tattooed, and wore a bowler cap, which for some reason made me think of a vaudeville performer.

How about now? Do we have a slightly better idea of the impression this character gave? Is there room now for this first impression to be subverted by future interactions?

But if you were this narrator, how could you really be sure that the reader gets the actual feeling — let’s say it was one of this bartender being this unexpected goofball — that you felt at the time? What about how he sounded? Can we hear his voice?

The bartender was tall, tattooed, and wore a bowler cap, which for some reason made me think of a vaudeville performer.

“Whatchall having?” he said in an unexpectedly high and tinny Southern accent.

Note now how the bartender appears as a “real” character — a person with a voice, an accent, a certain look, and a “relationship” (albeit just via the service industry) with the narrator. While this may not be necessary with every character the narrator encounters, they definitely need your consideration if they’ll be part of any important interactions in a story (for example, the bartender will, as the night reaches closing time, regale the narrator and her friends with his life story — and that’s what makes this particular night / experience worth recounting).

Join us on April 3rd for the “Transform Your Travel Writing” Twitter chat — #MatUTalks.

Learning from a master

As with learning anything, if you want to learn how to present characters, find a mentor or master. It doesn’t matter if they’re novelists, filmmakers, artists — photographers — what matters is that they inspire you with the way they create a sense of pathos or identity with their characters.

One of my favorites is Alice Munro, a Canadian short story master who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Take these examples:

She was a heavy young woman who looked as if she had given up in every department except her hair. That was blond and voluminous. All the puffed-up luxury of a cocktail waitress’s style, or stripper’s, on top of such a workaday face and body.

– from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

What sense does the narrator have of this woman? Does he see her in a way that seems inferior / judgmental? Is he simply evaluating her as a potential sexual conquest? (Note that the protagonist of this story — and the point of view through which the narrator is “seeing” this woman — is an aging philanderer.)

She occupied herself by pretending that she was seeing him for the first time, now. His curly, short-cropped, very dark hair receding at the temples, baring the smooth gold-tinged ivory skin. His wide, sharp shoulders and long, fine limbs and nicely shaped rather small skull. He smiled enchantingly but never strategically and seemed to distrust smiling altogether since he had become a teacher of boys. Faint lines of permanent fret were set in his forehead.

– from “What Is Remembered”

Note the emotional associations evoked in these physical descriptions. What is this narrator really considering in her view (as a middle-aged wife) of her husband? What can we tell about her own dreams and desires through the way she notices the “faint lines” in his forehead or the way he seems to “distrust” smiling?

One last example, my favorite, shows that physical descriptions do not have to be long and complex to convey very powerful associations. The story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” opens with a protagonist, Johanna, and the strong sense of her being a big-boned, homely woman in the midst of some as-yet undisclosed move across the country. All of her interactions with other characters build up a sense of her as this very undesirable, difficult woman, which of course sets up a huge potential for events later in the story to develop and subvert these first impressions.

A less skilled writer might take a character like this and reduce her to a template, describing her as being “loud” or “rude” or “overweight.” But Munro makes it so subtle and visceral. During a conversation with a train conductor, when asking about shipping her furniture, the woman is described this way:

Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.

In later parts to this series, we’ll look at other elements for transforming your travel writing. For now, consider how the physical descriptions you give characters give rise to emotional associations, a sense of the character as a real person, not just a cardboard cutout.