Thursday, April 20, 2006

Describing characters

I was watching reruns of one of my favourite comedy sketch shows, Big Train, last week. There was a classic sketch with a police artist sitting with a female witness, trying to put together a description. The woman is an intelligent, arty type. When the police artist asks the woman to describe the person they are looking for, he gently suggests they start with the eyes. She says: “He had melancholy eyes.” The police artist pauses, pencil hovering over the page. “So, would you say he had round eyes?” She shakes her head. Perplexed, he asks her to move onto the nose. “He had a defiant nose…there was rage behind that nose.” Again the police artist stares at the blank outline of a face on the page and back at her, completely unable to put what she sees into the drawing. “The nose had a bump on it?” he suggests. Again, she shakes her head. “Let’s move onto the mouth,” he says. The woman nods, seemingly more sure of herself. “He had a daft mouth.” The police artist is fast heading for a state of despair. But she goes on, she’s on a roll here: “He had ears like a fat, dead Japanese businessman and eyebrows that looked like they were on retractable springs.”

So it went on and got very silly, but it’s a classic sketch because of her style of description. What it pointed out to me (as a writer) is that we can show two things, what’s on the surface and what is beyond it, i.e. what you might glean about the person, from the way the person looks. Ideally, a combination of both works best. I always try to be light with my descriptions, give an idea of type, allow the reader to fill in some blanks, make their own archetype hero or heroine. But I’m still learning, (always!) and the sketch really made me think.

I’ve been reading Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series on/off for the last couple of years. I’ve read them all out of order, luckily that doesn’t matter. One of the many things I admire about Evanovich is the way she describes the many characters her protagonist meets. Here is a classic example. Stephanie is looking at a photo of her old flame and adversary Joe Morelli, a man she has to bring in to collect the bounty on his head.

He hadn’t changed much. A little leaner, perhaps. More bone definition in the face. A few lines at the eyes. A new scar, paper thin, sliced through his right eyebrow, causing his right eyelid to droop there was a slightly. The effect was unsettling. Menacing.

Evanovich has given us the perfect combination of visual characteristics and the effect those features have on the viewer, suggesting what is behind the surface. I really admire her skill of deftly painting character images for us and making them count, fast. That, and the fact that her dialogue and comebacks are brilliant, and she makes me laugh when I least expect it.

In other news, writer and editor Alison Tyler has an interview up at the Cleis Press website. If you’re a fan of Alison's writing, as I am, check it out. Lots of background about Alison’s start in writing erotica and her influences in music. I was also stunned and delighted to find that she mentioned little old me in there! It blew me away. I still have a big smile on my face!

1 comment:

wendywoo said...

I've never read Evanovich, but I *adore* Big Train! And that sketch you describe is a hoot...

If you like bizarre humour, do you watch Green Wing? Comedy god Mark Heap, from BT, is in that too.