Author's Workbook

The physical presence is a kind of chimera. It can be true, it can lie. It can reveal and obscure. It can be many things, even contradictory, things all at once. Most of the time, it’s a place holder for what can only be filled in over time, a process in which characters shape themselves through their actions, opinions and manner of speaking. You set a few basic principles and then let logic and feeling take over. The first appearance begins the process, often with a vivid or startling image. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left.

Add something essential about the character to an image speeds up the process. Raymond Carver, “Kindling”:

She was a fat girl. She was fat all over and she huffed when she breathed.

Or Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:

She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.

A dose of show-off rhetoric can convey what isn’t explicitly said. Henry James, The Aspern Papers:

Her face was not young, but it was simple; it was not fresh, but it was mild. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair which was not 'dressed,' and long fine hands which were—possibly—not clean.

The internal algorithm of a character is generally inviolable as it unspools and reveals itself over time, including surprising or unexpected outcomes. Language lived from within.  If the design logic is violated, there’s a sense that the character is just a marionette. Good if that’s your intent, bad if not. Sometimes characters surprise you and end up in a place different from the one they had been originally assigned. The key is to convey the power of choice, even if the goal is to demonstrate how in reality, what an illusion it actually is.

We all speak the same language, and yet it’s as if we don’t. How to capture that? Mannerisms is one way: subtleties of grammar, usage, certain pet phrases.  Characteristic opinions, gestures. But also this: the clumsy often randomness of speech, the shifting and varied emotions underlying the spoken words, the mistakes in understanding what is heard, the refusal to answer, the tangential and fragmented nature of speech, and the use of words to say less than they feel or more than they say. Dialogue represents, but does not mimic real speech. It’s shaped and rendered down to an essence. Reveals rather than exposes. George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle:

Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. "I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you, probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe 10 days, another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least 10 of them but I already talked to another guy up for them and he's, you know, expecting them. He's got something to do. So, six tomorrow night. Another dozen in a week."

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