Learn from the Masters: Writing Good Character Descriptions

Justin Oaksford: Perdido Street Station Establishing Shot
Perdido Street Station Establishing Shot by Justin Oaksford

I am currently reading Perdido Street Station by China Miéville for my master’s thesis. Yes, the progressive is deliberate – I’m still only half-way through. It is a long novel, but so far I’m really into it. (It’s also not an easy read, so I’m taking my time.) At one point, I came across what is probably one of the best character introductions or descriptions I have ever seen – and I wondered whether I could learn something from that in terms of my own fiction writing.

A character description does not need to be long or thorough – especially not for minor characters. In fact, I believe they’re most effective when they’re extremely concise and to the point. That might seem like it creates only one-dimensional personae, but there’s no reason why a short, snazzy description can’t evolve into a proper rounded character later on. But, as elsewhere in life, first impressions tend to stick with you, so what an author chooses to tell you first about a character is quite meaningful, and how he tells you even more so. (Warning: English Major Nerdiness follows.)

Let’s have a look at the description I am referring to (it is by far not the only good character description in Perdido Street Station):

Vermishank was not fat, but he was coated from his jowls down in a slight excess layer, a swaddling of dead flesh like a corpse’s. He wore a suit too small for him, and his necrotic white skin oozed from his sleeves. His thin hair was brushed and styled with neurotic fervour.

Vermishank was drinking lumpy cream soup. He dipped doughy bread into it regularly and sucked at the resulting mess, chewing but not biting off, gnawing and worrying at the saliva-fouled bread that dripped wan yellow onto his desk.

– Perdido Street Station, p.233

This isn’t the first time the reader hears of Vermishank. Before, the main character Isaac has referred to him a couple of times, always emphasizing how detestable he finds him. Vermishank also has “colourless eyes” and speaks in a “phlegmy whisper” (233).

I immediately reacted to this short intro. I was not only impressed, but my head immediately started to unpack all my analytical skills honed on classic literature on the past seven years. I tutored several minor classes alongside the Introduction to Literature, and now all I could think of was “this is the perfect excerpt. You can exemplify literary studies on this one, tiny piece.” (I guess since I’m out of classes to tutor, I now have to blog about this, else where would all the stuff in my head go?!)

But then I started thinking: I can analyze this; I could write several pages on this; but can I replicate this? I try to write – Fantasy, mostly – and I struggle so much with the little things like character introductions or narrator placement… can I actually learn something from an accomplished writer, or am I now too analytic for that?

For example, take the two complementing parts of the description: first the man, then his eating, which is as disgusting as he is himself. It’s a clever – instead of continuing to describe what Vermishank looks like, the author varies his approach and makes me feel like I am reading something new, when actually I am reading “Vermishank is disgusting” twice in a row. He drives the point home by using two images instead of just one to present his character.

Alberto Gordillo: Perdido Street Station
Perdido Street Station by Alberto Gordillo

Secondly, telling names. Anyone who’s ever picked up a Charles Dickens novel knows what I mean. Vermishank makes me think of vermin and shanks most commonly refers to lamb. So once again we have one image that’s disgusting and another that is related to food, and all together I already have an image in my head of a fat, ugly rat gorging itself on greasy meat. To underscore this, rather than just eating his food, he is “worrying” it like an animal.

Once you descend into the actual text, look at the groups of words that are used in the two parts. Note that negations don’t really “count” much – a word mentioned is a word read. So when it says, “Vermishank was not fat…”, what we actually notice mostly is the “fat“. So what we have is:

Fat, excess, layer, swaddling, flesh, ooze, lumpy, doughy, suck, mess, saliva, foul, drip, wan, yellow. Next comes dead, corpse, necrotic, white, thin, gnawing, foul…  you already see the peculiar image of a person that looks unhealthy, dead and rotting, but at the same time, alive in a disgusting, nauseating sort of way. Instead of saying he was fat and disgusting, this is how China Miéville went about it, and the result is exemplary.

I could go on, but the question I now ask myself is, how do I learn to write like this? I actually took a couple of mandatory writing classes during my studies, and what was most fun was the characterization essay we had to write. Sadly, we didn’t do more in that vein, but we learnt some great tips. I’ve also attended a Creative Writing class for several terms which added to that list:

1. Learn to describe people by watching them closely. Start by describing someone you know, rather than with a made-up person immediately.

2. Make lists and organize them. If some character trait, look or habit doesn’t fit into one or two easily discernible categories, leave them out for now. For the first impression you need to stay coherent – there’s time enough later to diversify your character.

3. Start with the body, because that’s what we see first when we meet someone. Choose either the head or the feet and work your way down- or upwards. If a person is really tall and you’re tiny, why not start with the feet and make the reader “look up” with you? Always stick to your categories and describe what you see in terms of that category. For example, Vermishank’s eating could have been described in a way that makes me think of food as delicious and cream as savoury. Instead, we stay in the same line of description: disgusting man, disgusting creamy soup. It works with a lot of things – for practise, try seeing everyday occurrences that you find pleasurable in a disgusting light and vice versa, then describe them.

4. When you continue on to the speech and little habits of the person, stay coherent and refer back to your description before: Do speech and habits contradict or complement the first bodily impression? For example, a thin, scrawny, weak-looking person might be expected to speak in a weak or thin voice, eat reluctantly and things like that. But what if you find the person to act absolutely differently? Emphasize it!

5. Lastly, you don’t have to drop all information at once. If the person is in a conversation, you can gently trickle the rest of your bits and pieces into the dialogue. Try to go beyond imagining what people are saying, and think about how they’re saying it. Almost everyone has some kind of verbal identifier – think of your friends and family: you can recognize their voices, right? Why? Think of slang, or how casual someone is with their grammar and how they address people. For example, Vermishank speaks to Isaac in a manner very complementary of his eating – sloppy, casually, without respect. Isaac, on the other hand, is a nice, friendly, open person. When he speaks to his client Yagharek, he usually addresses him as “Yag, old son”, something that clashes almost visibly with the reluctant, quiet manner of the austere garuda.

The World of China Mieville by Andrew Hou
The World of China Mieville by Andrew Hou

You can actually use this approach for a lot of things – landscape description, for example.  If this seems too long, I believe it helps to keep one rule in mind: Think of your writing like a painting. Or, if you’re less classically inclined, a comic book or a graphic novel. Imagine that five pages of your text end up creating an image in the mind of your reader. It doesn’t do if you have a canvas with a little something here and a little something other there… you need one coherent, structured display, something the eye can roam, something that leaves an impact. Like they say in painting classes: Bold strokes! I can see Vermishank and his office before my eyes, easily. I can imagine the city of New Crobuzon, because Miéville spends entire chapters just describing what it looks like.

Don’t take me for a traditionalist: You may say “but Jackson Pollock doesn’t follow the classical, coherent idea of paintings or the golden ratio!” (Or something like that… I am no expert on Pollock *cough*) Well, in fact, when you look at his work, I still believe they create one unified impression for the viewer. Try to emulate that, even if your character looks like a Pollock painting. (In fact, try describing someone with a particular painting in mind. Oscar Wilde did it all the time. You might be surprised what you come up with.)

Autumn Rhythm, by Jackson Pollock, 1950
Autumn Rhythm by Jackson Pollock (1950)

This all sounds pretty reasonable, right? Well, here’s my problem, then: By thinking about this so much, by analyzing literature in this respect so often, I have become paralyzed with apprehension. The structures of description, and likewise of plot and development, are so obvious to me now, that I believe they must be for everyone. Whenever I write, I feel that I somehow need to disguise myself. I feel like I’m being too obvious, that if I use these techniques, I am not doing anything spectacular, just exercising a few easy-to-follow tips. Horrible thought, right? Art is supposed to be this creative, free-flowing endeavour, right?

Wrong! Here’s the thing: Free creativity is awesome! But to communicate this awesome idea of yours to somebody else, you need to shape it into a coherent whole. Think of your creative ideas like colourful Play-Doh, and you need to press it into forms (spaghetti or whatever…). Lie down, have a glass of wine, and let your ideas roam, take notes… and the next day, grab a coffee and try to structure them. Try to hold on to the painting in your head as long as it takes to properly describe it in writing.

So far, so good – I’ve almost convinced myself! Now all that’s left for me to do is follow my own advice and get on with my fantasy world description… Thanks for reading, I’d appreciate any helpful comments! Does anyone have writing or reading experiences like this, too?

Reference: Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. London: Pan Books, 2000.

2 thoughts on “Learn from the Masters: Writing Good Character Descriptions

  1. Reblogged this on jackconner and commented:
    Yikes! I love “Perdito Street Station”, but I wouldn’t recommend it for character descriptions. China, in my opinion anyway, is not as adept at characters as he is at some other things. The main character in Perdito becomes a parody of himself in the second half, and he’s one of the few memorable personalities I’ve come across in China’s work. That said, I don’t mean to put him down at all. China is a masterful wordsmith, and his worldbuilding is absolutely jaw-dropping — truly inspiring, and I say that as a fellow weird fiction writer. But his characters . . .

    • Thanks for reblogging! Well, actually I partly agree with you. There are a lot of things Miéville does better – like the worldbuilding which is spectacular, or his skill in creating horror. However, I do love his characters although they tend to blend into the strongly painted background. Take Lin, for example: She doesn’t play a huge role in the novel and yet he devotes considerable time to her backstory and her sensibilities – basically just to build up to that one, horrible moment at the end. Just to make that believable. I thought that was some very decent character work. But in the end, this is a matter of taste, I guess.

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