The Battered Suitcase

The maxim “Show, don't tell” is mostly applied to narration about characters. Rather than telling a reader that a character did something, the character actively does it. In a similar fashion this axiom can be applied to your descriptions. When you pick the right details to describe a situation, you can use them to reveal character.

The first choices that come to mind are details that show how a character presents herself to others. If she is wearing a faded blouse to a party, you can make it indicate the present state of her finances. If she wears tons of makeup to that party, you can make it indicate her level of satisfaction with her spouse. As the saying goes, clothes make the man, and employing that principle can yield many details that are targeted to the person described.

Such external appearances can also be used to deceive. Any swindler can use his racetrack winnings to buy a Savile Row suit. The clerk’s wife in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” ruins her entire life when she tries to pretend she’s something she’s not at a grand ball. Or the character can head in the opposite direction, such as the beggar that Sherlock Holmes unmasks in “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

Descriptions can extend to a character’s home life as well. Rather than talking about a character being down and out, you provide the circumstances. For example: “His battered yellow Mitsubishi was parked in the sloping driveway. The slope was ideal for jump-starting the dead battery in the mornings.” An automobile can be expressive in other ways. If the floor of the backseat is filled with ersatz trash and the character is over the age of 25, the reader can infer her self-control in terms of holding a steady job.

Such details can also be made progressive, changing over the course of a novel. A man who always wears a blue blazer at a party where he doesn’t know people may end up going to that house later in the book wearing a well-washed polo shirt, showing his comfort with his host. By contrast, a change from a clean-shaven jaw to a few days’ growth can indicate an incipient showdown with his control-freak boss. You’re letting your descriptions do the talking for you.

Exercise: You need to develop the habit of cataloguing details. Any tidbit that strikes you during the day, write it down. Or take a photo. What about the ridiculous buttonniere at that wedding? Who might that describe? Look for details that define the down and out, the rich and fabulous. Which characters would they fit?

“Although golf was originally restricted to wealthy, overweight Protestants, today it's open to anybody who owns hideous clothing.”
—Dave Barry

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.