Off in the margins of my j-school notes sits a double-boxed aside: SUSAN ORLEAN. The bullfighter checks her makeup. A collection of profiles. Writes for the New Yorker.
It was early in the academic year, and I was in the midst of making the transition from molecular biologist to journalist. I had always struggled with character descriptions, so I latched onto Susan Orlean’s writing when my Boston University professor Chris Daly mentioned her.
John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. He is thirty-four years old, and works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery on the tribal reservation near Miami. The Seminole nicknames for Laroche are Crazy White Man and Troublemaker.
I read a lot of Susan Orlean during graduate school. (Now I follow her on Twitter.) Years later, it’s easier, but still plenty of hard work to write pithy character descriptions. I find it heartening to hear that other writers feel the same. We struggle over what to leave in–and leave out–and whether we’re being too mean to the villain or have become too close to the hero. How do we show instead of tell to create a character that no one would mistake for someone else?
On getting down the details
There are basic details you may need for your story, whether your realize it or not, and you cannot hope to recall them from memory later. Lulls in the action (assuming you’re in the field) are great times to jot down the person’s physical description – hair and eye color, wardrobe choices – as well as their mannerisms or tendencies.
“He’s got kind, tired eyes — Vonnegutian eyes — to which his eyebrows, scroll-shaped, offer fancy punctuation.”
– From “Mark Roth’s Proof of Reincarnation,” by Tom Junod, Esquire, December 2008.
You probably won’t include everything in the story, but you may find out later that they are important as it relates to the character and the story. “I think it’s best to get the details down as soon as possible. To me those first impressions are the truest,” says Anne Sasso (bio).
For the observationally challenged, a digital camera can become a useful reporting tool. Doug Fox (bio) says he has started to take photos and video to capture physical details, as well as mannerisms and speech, when he’s on assignment.
Write about people doing things
A good portrayal of someone goes beyond the bare physical facts. It provides insight and does more useful work to describe who the person is, what they stand for, and why they tick. “My new rule,” says Emma Marris (bio), “is to only include descriptions that reveal something essential about the person or relevant to the subject of the piece…. For an obesity researcher, his or her stature is germane.”
When you’ve spent hours and hours with someone, you can cherry pick a descriptive scene to add depth to the story through juxtaposition or to establish a turning point in the character’s life. Tom Hayden (bio) still chuckles when he thinks about this passage from a Wired profile of Craig Venter by James Shreeve. It sets the scene and a tone, and implies an inflection point in a life and humanizes an “easily caricatured profile subject,” he says.
“You are standing at the edge of a lagoon on a South Pacific island. The nearest village is 20 miles away, reachable only by boat. The water is as clear as air. Overhead, white fairy terns hover and peep among the coconut trees. Perhaps 100 yards away, you see a man strolling in the shallows. He is bald, bearded, and buck naked. He stoops every once in a while to pick up a shell or examine something in the sand … His pate is sunburned, and the beard is new since he graced the covers of Time and BusinessWeek. It makes him look younger and more relaxed – not that I ever saw him looking very tense, even when the genome race got ugly and his enemies were closing in. This afternoon, the only adversary he has to contend with is the occasional no-see-um nipping at some tender body part.”
I keep going back to Burkhard Bilger’s writing for vivid descriptions of people and places. Right now, this is one of my go-to pieces for inspiration:
“If Daniel Boone were alive today, he’d be a gem dealer,” [Tom Chushman] told me. “They are the guys who just won’t stay home, who want to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Then not die.” Cushman, who is fifty-two, says things of this sort a lot. A decade and a half in a former French colony has only made him seem more American. He has wide, square shoulders, a swaggering walk, and graying hair that he wears somewhat long, like an aging detective in an Elmore Leonard novel. His English is full of bullet points and tough-guy aphorisms; his French has no room for fluty vowels or frilly idioms. “Je suis serieux comme une crise de coeur!” he’ll say (I’m as serious as a heart attack!”), leaving the locals a little startled and concerned for his health.
–From “The Path of Stones,” by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, October 2, 2006. (Behind paywall.)
Take the reader by the hand
Physical descriptions can reveal a reporter’s personal opinion, inner biases, and preconceptions about a person. Tom often avoids writing them altogether. “If you find someone delightful, you’re likely to describe how they look in the best possible light; if the opposite, the same characteristics can be described in much less flattering terms,” he says.
But sometimes that might work to your advantage.
As the invisible narrator, the writer has the power to evoke specific emotions from the reader. As a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication Program, Jessica Marshall (bio) interviewed Jennifer Kahn and asked her about the way she chose to describe the characters in her stories.
In her Wired piece, “The Very Modern Prince,” Kahn writes about the Crown Prince of Tonga: “His somewhat lumpy features — chubby earlobes and a heavy chin on an elongated, potatoish head — are dignified by wire spectacles and a small, close-cut mustache.” Kahn told Jessica that lot of people thought “potatoish” was going too far; they wanted to protect him. “He wasn’t an obviously sympathetic character,” Kahn later noted. “He was a prince who did falconry, which isn’t very relatable. The slightly cruel description made him a vulnerable figure, to the reader – which, at a deeper level, he was.”
Here are some more SciLance favorites. What are yours?
- “Natural-born Networker,” by Thomas Hayden, U.S. News and World Report, October 31, 2005.
- “Amazon’s (not-so) secret war on taxes,” by Peter Elkind, Fortune, May 23, 2013. (Behind paywall.)
- “Why is it so damn hard to change?,” by Rebecca Skloot, O, The Oprah Magazine, January 2007.