“Writing about People” is the title of Chapter 3 of Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making. It includes excellent advice for any writer who needs to brush up on this subject.
Hughes acknowledges the difficulty. “Out of all the writing about people that is in existence, it is unbelievable how little seems to contain any life at all.”
Interested in Sir Francis Bacon, Hughes reported that the man finally came alive when he read that Bacon had eyes “like a viper.” Finally, Bacon had become “near and real.”
It’s a question of capturing the details which “catch” life. But how? Is the trick of breathing life into a character listing details, such as ” ‘He had a big nose and was bald, and wore blue mostly, but sometimes brown.’ ”
No. Not in the slightest.
Does the trick consist of being scientifically precise?
His brow, at the height of his eyebrows, was precisely seven and a quarter inches across, and from the lowest root of the hair at the mid-point of the hairline along the upper brow, to the slight horizontal wrinkle in the saddle of his nose, measured three inches exact.
Hughes goes on, but this is enough description to conclude that no, the tape measure and calipers approach to description isn’t the way to go, though the character of a narrator who would do this interests me.
A trick to rendering vivid, lively description of human beings is derived from Bacon’s viper-eyes. Similes, metaphors capture the essence of a human being in ways static description cannot. It is because, in my opinion, they don’t try to be objective, but are interpretations. They are what I like to call “description with attitude.”
So don’t describe a character statically, a boring flaw that a friend from my Nashville Writers Alliance workshop days called, “enter character, accompanied by description.”
But do render the character in action, and while doing so, offer the essential details, the interesting and unusual ones, that make one character distinct from another. Hughes gives a good example, but I prefer this one, the first entrance of the convict Abel Magwitch, who terrorizes Pip in a graveyard, from Dickens’ Great Expectations:
Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head, as he seized me by the chin.
A final bit of wisdom is to offer one or two of the essential incidents that have defined that person as a human being. I won’t give an example here, but leave it to you to figure it out.
These four “tricks”: simile/metaphor, character in action, essential details, and defining incidents, put the reader’s imagination to work, and that is their virtue according to Hughes, who includes an interesting exercise in this chapter – one I intend to try the moment I have some poetry composition time:
If you were asked to set down an account of your father, in twenty lines, how would you do it?…describe the actions and doings that seem most characteristic of him, that distinguish him from everybody else.
Feel free to modify the exercise to your own purposes.
Hughes was not only a great poet, but a hell of a teacher as well, if this anthology of his teaching “programmes” are any indication. I urge all writers, whether poets or not, to buy a used copy of Poetry in the Making and read it. And, now that you’ve read the blog, get to work on that character description.