Character description using third-person limited; short stories before novels?
Published: July 17, 2007
|I am trying to keep to a strict third-person limited point of view from the perspective of a single character. How can I let the reader know what my character looks like? I know to avoid the "mirror trick" of having the character look in the mirror and describe himself. And I know not to have another character make lengthy comments in dialogue that describe him. So I know how not to do it, but I don't actually know how I should do it.|
While you may want to look through the character's eyes most of the time when using third-person limited, you can look at him for a moment without breaking the point of view or losing intimacy. That ability to shift emotional distance is one of the benefits of third person, after all. Anthony Doerr's short story "So Many Chances," for example, is told in third person from Dorotea's perspective and stays very close to her. In the first lines, she's described like this:
Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan. The janitor's daughter. Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick.
Scaling back to just a few defining details--ones that capture the essence of the character's appearance--is often more effective than describing a character at length. You can drop in details throughout the story, too, so that collectively they create an image.
If you prefer to execute third-person limited point of view by looking through the character's eyes at all times--or if you're using first person, where you must do this--deliver details of appearance through action. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Purple Hibiscus, 15-year-old Kambili, the first-person narrator, has just witnessed her father throw a missal at her brother because he did not take communion at church. The missal flies past the boy and destroys a collection of her mother's figurines instead. Adichie slips in a detail of Kambili's appearance when showing her reaction:
I pulled at one of the cornrows underneath my black church scarf to make sure I was not dreaming.
The emphasis is not on the description of the character, but rather on this nervous gesture. As a result, the reader is building an image of the character while engaging in the intrigue of the moment.
Don't throw out any techniques just because they've been done so poorly that they've gotten a bad reputation. You're right--laying detail on too thick in dialogue can feel downright awkward, but a lighter touch can do the job well. In "Duet," Stacey Richter uses the dialogue between Clara and a new acquaintance, Jo, to reveal details of Clara's appearance:
"Do you bleach your hair?" [Jo] said.
"What?" said Clara.
"Well, your hair has such nice highlights I just wondered if you bleached it."
"Oh no. I would never be allowed to do something like that."
Jo huffed and rolled her eyes. "That figures. What else aren't you allowed to do?"
Clara paused--she could never tell when people were making fun of her. "Drink more than one Coke," she finally said. "Watch channels other than PBS. Get anything less than an A. Shave my legs."
"No way! You still can't shave your legs?" Jo cupped her hand over her mouth and giggled ... "Can I see?" asked Jo.
Clara felt shy but she bent down anyway and pulled up her pants leg. Jo leaned over and stroked her furry shin.
Richter delivers two defining details--the color of her hair and her unshaven legs--while keeping the reader's attention on the more evocative tension of Clara revealing she lives a more sheltered life than Jo.
Even that "mirror trick" can work if it's doing more than just listing physical attributes. In Charles D'Ambrosio's short story "Her Real Name", Jones has just come home from a half a year at sea. When he looks in the mirror, he sees "gray eyes, a sharp sculpted jaw, ears that jutted absurdly from his close-cropped head: a navy face." More importantly, though, he realizes "he'd forgotten not only what he looked like, but what other people might see when they looked at him," and that gives important insight into Jones' state of mind. (But be careful with this technique. It's been used often enough that it can feel like a cliché when not absolutely necessary.)
Keep the focus on the action and on compelling revelations of the character. Appearance can emerge naturally from such moments.
Should new writers start with short stories before writing a novel?
The short story is a great way to learn about the elements of craft. You can explore and refine characterization, conflict, point of view and setting, all of which are important in both the short story and the novel. And you can even experiment more widely, tackling a first-person point of view in one story, for example, and third person in another. Writing a short story isn't easier than writing a novel. In fact, some writers find the short story more difficult. But exploring and experimenting in the bounds of a seven-page story rather than a 200-page novel can feel more manageable to newer writers. It can also help you develop an understanding of your individual skills and preferences as a writer.
However, there are significant differences between short stories and novels. Conflict, for example, must be introduced, developed and resolved quickly in a short story, whereas a novel demands a broader scope and more development to sustain tension. Figuring out how much ground you can cover, and how to negotiate the increases and plateaus in each form, is something you can learn only from practicing and reading that particular length.
So don't feel hemmed in by short stories. If you're ready for that novel, by all means get started. You will learn a lot about fiction, much of which can only come from writing a novel. But you might find the shorter form a comfortable way to develop your skills if you're feeling unsure with the basics.
(For inspiration, you may want to read Fiction Gallery, an anthology of exceptional short stories compiled by Gotham Writers' Workshop.)
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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