Today was the monthly meeting of the creative writing group I lead, and although we’ve mentioned character before, and mentioned ‘voice’ we looked again at the personalities we might write about and how we might describe them to make them leap off the page for our readers.
I was a little surprised that the members of the group who are all good writers, struggled a little with the idea of this apart from one who was very intrigued, and went away resolving to think again about how she writes and presents the people in her stories. I gave three different examples of how really good writers describe their characters, or introduce or present them to their audience. I started with Shakespeare, and the soldier’s description of Macbeth in the second scene, before we have met him:
For brave Macbeth,–well he deserves that name,–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smok’d with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion,
Carv’d out his passag tTill he fac’d the slave;
And ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection
Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break;
So from that spring, whence comfort seem’d to come
Discomfort swells. Mark, King of Scotland, mark:
No sooner justice had, with valor arm’d,
Compell’d these skipping kerns to trust their heels,
But the Norweyan lord, surveying vantage,
With furbish’d arms and new supplies of men,
Began a fresh assault.
Dismay’d not this Our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?
As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion.
If I say sooth, I must report they were
As cannons overcharg’d with double cracks;
Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell:–
We have a picture of Macbeth, and Banquo, and their relationship, before we meet them. I then shared an excerpt from ‘Great Expectations’ by Dickens, where Pip is describing his sister Mrs Joe, and at the same time her husband, Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe, and also giving us some information about Pip himself.
My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand. Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow,—a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.
My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life.
My third example was from ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, by John le Carré which is my favourite book. If you haven’t read it I really recommend it, he is masterful… what a writer!
I hope maybe my group will think about their characters when they next begin to write, and maybe have a go at writing about them differently.