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Revealing Character through Details
Is creating a character like designing a building? Mies van der Rohe (German born, American architect, 1886-1969,) famously said, “God is in the details.” This quote is a reference to the fact that it’s the small, subtle design elements that can make a building (or even a book, perhaps?) transcend the common to become something unique and beautiful. Interestingly, Mies van der Rohe is also credited with having said, “Less is more,” a reference to the theory that a few strong design elements will always outshine an excess of lesser details. Mies van der Rohe may have been commenting on architecture, but it can be argued that his ideas apply just as well to fiction writing. Put these two quotes together, and they add up to a valuable philosophy for revealing character in fiction: one clear and memorable detail can reveal more about a character than page upon page of general description. Consider this example:
The woman was tall and had clear blue eyes. Her hair was a shade of blond that made her always seem to have just come from the beach, and her skin was liberally freckled. Her smile was wide, and she smiled often. She was slim enough to wear whatever she liked, but she favored blue jeans and t-shirts. She was almost never seen in a dress. Although she had passed her fortieth birthday two years earlier, she gave the impression of someone much younger.
There’s nothing too terrible about the above paragraph. It succeeds at creating a picture in the reader’s mind of the woman it means to describe. But what if we add one small detail?
Over the years, she’d perfected a certain posture, in which her right hand was almost always clasped over her left wrist. Practice had refined it to a shy, feminine gesture. Almost no one knew the truth – that the habit had been adopted in order to conceal a pale, fading, yet still distinct scar that crisscrossed her left wrist—a scar she’d given herself at the age of sixteen.
This detail tells us more about what makes this character unique than all the information about her appearance that preceded it. The physical description, of course, is still valuable. Hair color, eye color, height, weight – they all play a part in revealing character. But tell me what’s written on the folded paper the character keeps constantly in his pocket, and you’ve told me a whole chapter of the character’s life story in just a few lines. The perfect piece of information about a character can be physical (such as the scar on the woman’s wrist in the example above,) or behavioral (such as the woman’s well developed affectation used to hide the scar.) The type of detail given matters less than the type of information the detail reveals. Here are three distinct examples:
He has Dad’s eyes, but Soda is one of a kind. He can get drunk in a drag race or dancing without ever getting near alcohol. In our neighborhood it’s rare to find a kid who doesn’t drink once in a while. But Soda never touches a drop—he doesn’t need to. He gets drunk on just plain living. And he understands everybody.
—S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
I wasn’t looking at her face, but at the part of her I could see with my head lowered: her blue waist, thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane, the large diamonds on the ring finger, which must once have been fine and was still finely kept, the fingernail at the end of the knuckly finger filed to a gentle curving point. It was like an ironic smile, on that finger; like something mocking her.
—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
To my surprise, my mother has laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me. A soft blue thing with matching shoes. "Are you sure," I ask. I'm trying to get past rejecting offers of help from her. For a while, I was so angry, I wouldn't allow her to do anything for me. And this is something special. Her clothes from her past are very precious to her.
—Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
These three examples describe widely varying details—a boy’s natural state of intoxication, a woman’s manicured fingernail, a mother's dress. But each description packs a lot of information into a short passage. God is in the details. Less is more. True of architecture. True of characterization. Thank you Mies van der Rohe! Do you choose unique details to reveal the nature of your characters? What about your favorite fictional characters - are there unique details that make them stand out in your mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments!