While writing on this long-term journey, (1.5 of 6 months in) I find myself becoming more and more interested in describing characters (ie: real people, in this case) in an honest, unique, and kind way. I’m using Rebecca McClanahan’s article, “11 Secrets to Writing Character Description,” as a guide while doing so. (https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/11-secrets-to-writing-effective-character-description).
Here’s a distillation of the most useful “secrets” for writing nonfiction characters:
- Go beyond physical attributes.
- To avoid cliche, keep phrases accurate, sensory, and fresh. (She gives this example: Instead of saying “Her eyes were hazel,” do as Emily Dickinson did and say they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”)
- Make details more specific: can add physical touch or personality and background.
- Only choose physical details that create the strongest, most revealing impression. (“Zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task,” etc. Description of image, physical feeling, smell, movements.)
- Characters reveal their inner lives–values, preoccupations, lifestyles, likes & dislikes, fears & aspirations–by the objects that fill their hands, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams. (This is my FAVORITE of all her secrets, because it’s the most interesting and I can do this!)
- To make characters believable, set them in a place and on something; a brown recliner, etc. Give it a time.
Here’s my practice:
The Social Irishman carries a leather briefcase whenever he leaves the hostel. We see him at night in the kitchen, where he’s roasting parsnips and boiling vegetables for the women in the house–Ray of Sunshine and myself. Later he’ll wipe clean a few wine glasses for five minutes and then he’ll pour smooth burgundy wine into our glasses, and pour again when they’re half empty. “Will you have more?” He’ll ask while pouring. “She’s a ray of Sunshine, isn’t she?” He’ll say of the girl from Brazil, over and over. “Can you imagine ever not liking someone like her?”
When we meet in the reception room and I tell her I’m a volunteer, the Brazilian woman smiles so large her temples take over her cheeks. “I’m a volunteer too,” she says, dirty blonde hair falling over her face and down to her waist, and leads me upstairs to a door marked “Volunteers.” “This is our room,” she says. “You can have one of these,” she says inside, pointing to the triple bunkbed: the bed in the middle and on top are both available. But the middle one really isn’t, because there are scarves, hats, and blouses piled on the mattress. There are clothes all over the floor too, and a few on the window sill, and a dirty plate and bowl on the sill. The macabre hostel owner will say one morning, “She’s just a ray of sunshine, isn’t she?” And it will become her character for the rest of our time together.