Whenever we meet someone new, we build up our impression of them on the basis of their appearance, speech, actions and surroundings. In literature, authors introduce ‘characters’ – or people – to us as readers, and we get to know them in much the same way, making our judgements accordingly. Of course, as readers, we may be privileged with extra insights not available to real acquaintances (e.g. we might be told what someone is thinking). The more we get to know someone, the more subtle and complex our response to them will be.
In fiction, however, there is not time or space to develop this acquaintance without rigorously selecting details which are felt to be important in revealing character. In novels, short stories or poetry we come to understand characters and interpret their behaviour and their relationships very quickly. A good author can make his characters really believable (if that is his intention, though this is not always the case). The shorter the work of literature, the more rigorously the author needs to select the right details in order to capture the reader’s interest and bring his characters alive.
The presentation of a character in literature is often called a character ‘sketch’ or ‘portrait’. This is a metaphor from painting. Physical features and appearance are obviously part of what’s involved in a ‘pen portrait’ but with words much more is possible. Character portraits range from in-depth psychological studies and life-histories – for instance, the character Isabel Archer in Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady – to short sketches which develop one major aspect of an individual, e.g. age, meanness, innocence, etc.
Sometimes an author may present a character in a very straightforward manner, discussing personality, psychology, temperament without elaboration:
Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast…
One of the most frequently used ways in which characters are depicted in literature is the description of physical appearance. This seems natural as, no matter how much else we know about someone, it is difficult to have any real sense of separate individual identity without a ‘face’ to attach it to. Usually it is not necessary to give an exhaustive portrayal; an author may choose one or two details which are most effective:
Gab – an aproned hemisphere and round, red greasy face.
Some details may be more revealing than others. For instance, in this story, by H.E. Bates, we are introduced to a rather eccentric character called Great Uncle Crow:
…a big tangling red-faced man with rusty hair came to the door. His trousers were black and very tight. His eyes were a smeary vivid blue, the same colour as the stripes of his shirt…
This, in itself, does not tell us a great deal although the story has given us other clues. Later, we are told more about Crow’s appearance:
His belly was tight as a bladder of lard in his black trousers, which were mossy green on the knees and seat.
This small detail is perhaps more revealing of Uncle Crow’s lifestyle than the previous description. In fact, physical appearance is actually most interesting when it is used to say something more about personality. Consider, for instance, the following description of a fair-haired young man with a ruddy complexion and blue eyes:
He had a ruddy, rounding face, with fairish hair, rather long. Flattened to his forehead with sweat. His eyes were blue, and very bright and sharp. On his cheeks, on the fresh ruddy skin were fine, fair hairs, like a down, but sharper. It gave him a slightly glistening look. Having his heavy sack on his shoulders, he stooped, thrusting his head forward.
Here, D.H. Lawrence uses basic physical details to give a very distinct, and threatening impression of this man’s personality. In the story – called The Fox (can you see any connections?) – he has only just walked through the door, but has already made an impact, and the reader is somewhat intrigued to know what part he will play in the story.
We are born with such features as brown or blue eyes, black or blonde hair, and so on (though these we can change, too). To a large extent this sort of detail can only be made expressive of character through an act of imagination: if our eyes are small and our lips thin, it doesn’t imply we are mean or small-minded, if our nose is pointed, we aren’t necessarily a nosey character, and so on. These are stereotypes, which a good author will probably avoid. Physical features can be used in a less conventional way to express personality, however:
When she looked at him again, his face was like a mask, with strange, deep-graven lines and a glossy dark skin and a fixed look – as if carved half grotesquely in some glossy stone. His black hair on his smooth, beautifully shaped head seemed changeless.
And it can be used as a sign of feeling or emotion, as Adrian Mole shrewdly noticed:
Pandora’s father stayed for a quick drink, then a pre-lunch one, then a chaser, then one for the road. Then we had one to prove that he never got drunk during the day. Pandora’s lips started to go thin (women must teach young girls to do this). Then she confiscated her father’s car keys and phoned her mother to come and collect the car… They were both drunkenly singing when Pandora’s mother came in. Her lips were so thin they had practically disappeared.
Often, it is the more flexible aspects of our appearance which are potentially very rich in implication for character – such details, as, the way a person ‘Does’ their hair (or not), the clothes they wear and their state of neatness, cleanliness and so on. In our own lives, the way we modify our appearance is a personal statement whether we intend it to be or not: a punk haircut, a school uniform, a suit, a prison outfit are some more obvious examples. We may learn only fairly superficial details about someone from their clothing – for instance, about their occupation and standard of living:
Entered the little lady in her finery and her crumpled prettiness. She would not be very old… perhaps younger than fifty. And it was odd that her face had gone so crumpled, because her figure was very trim, her eyes were bright, and she had pretty teeth when she laughed. She was very fine in her clothes: a dress of thick knitted white silk, a large ermine scarf with the tails only at the ends, and a black hat over which dripped a trail of green feathers of the osprey sort.
But there are very many subtle impressions which an author can exploit: for instance, whether we wear a uniform neatly or not may say something about our attitude to the authority which imposes the uniform, or about our neatness in other ways. Even in the descriptions above of Mrs. Hepburn, the fact that she is rather crumpled and wrapped thickly in furs and clothes is eventually used in the story as a sign of her rather ‘dried up’, artificial, doll-like nature. Although personal experience is never a foolproof guide to personality, writers often use the expressive aspect of dress, fashion, etc. to develop character.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
She was broad-shouldered, with a regular face, and sat in one corner of the sofa. She was powdered carefully, had a reddened mouth – her golden hair was brushed fiercely up from the sides of her head, so that it formed a stiff ornament, like a curious helmet. Her right hand lay quiescently holding a burning cigarette, a she wore a checked tweed costume.
Another way in which character can be expressed is through actions; in the same way that a nervous tic or stammer might reveal someone to be of a nervous disposition, or a slow, strolling gait might reveal someone to be relaxed and easy-going, an author can pick out a gesture, a habit or a single action and use it to illuminate another aspect of his character’s personality. For instance, in this poem by T.S. Eliot, we read of a woman who is now past her prime, and is in some way trying to manipulate a younger man. She may be trying to make him feel guilty about leaving her. This situation, and the woman’s desire to control, is neatly summed up in this small gesture:
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks
Although actions do speak very loudly in revealing personality, very few characters in literature have no opportunity to speak for themselves; the words we speak and the way we say them are extremely important tools in characterization. For instance, read the following passages where the words that someone uses reveal to us something of their nature:
Now I have mentioned, and you have mentioned, that I am this day married to Tom Gradgrind’s daughter. I am very glad to be so. It has long been my wish to be so. I have watched her bringing-up, and I believe she is worthy of me. At the same time – not to deceive you – I believe I am worthy of her.