Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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Character description -- How to do it


Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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Balzac was the master at characterization. When a character first entered his story, he gave only a little description, leaving the rest to be filtered in as the narration continues;

Honoré de Balzac French novelist Born 1799 Died 1850

Honoré de Balzac

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Cousin Bette movie starring Elisabeth Shue and Jessica Lange

Cousin Bette movie starring Elisabeth Shue and Jessica Lange

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                                       From Cousin Bette, Chapter One. Published in 1847

                                       About the middle of July, 1838, one of those hackney carriages lately put into
                                       circulation along the streets of Paris and called milords was making its way
                                       through the Rue de l'Universite, carrying a fat man of medium height, dressed
                                       in the uniform of a captain of the National Guard.

                                       Among Parisians, who are thought to be so witty and wise, we may find some who
                                       fancy they are infinitely more attractive in uniform than in their ordinary
                                       clothes, and who attribute so depraved a taste to the fair sex that they imagine
                                       women are favorably impressed by a bear-skin cap and military equipment.

Here we have an introduction to Monsieur Crevel, and it is quite enough to give us a glimpse of the man and to pique our curiosity about him. As he proceeds to his rendezvous and meets his hostess, we see more and more of him until a complete picture emerges.

If Balzac had spent a page or two giving Monsieur Crevel's complete description all at once, the reader would probably have skimmed down, looking for dialogue or action.

By mixing little bits of characterization in with the action and movement of the story, the reader remains engaged and interested in what this gentleman is up to.

In your notes, you should have a complete character sketch of each person in your story. The first few paragraphs of your story should introduce your main character. Take two of his or her features from your notes, for example, a weak chin and Pacific-blue eyes (Not green eyes. See my section on clichés) and then show what this person is doing.

Taking the opposite example, for comparison;

Lew Wallace born in 1827 died 1905 Author of Ben Hur

Lew Wallace

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Ben Hur movie starring Charlton Heston

Ben Hur movie starring Charlton Heston

Photo credit: Logan and Otto

                                       Ben Hur by Lew Wallace. Published in 1880.

                                       Tirzah was her name, and as the two looked at each other, their
                                       resemblance was plain. Her features had the regularity of his,
                                       and were of the same Jewish type; they had also the charm of
                                       childish innocency of expression. Home-life and its trustful
                                       love permitted the negligent attire in which she appeared.
                                       A chemise buttoned upon the right shoulder, and passing loosely
                                       over the breast and back and under the left arm, but half
                                       concealed her person above the waist, while it left the arms
                                       entirely nude. A girdle caught the folds of the garment, marking
                                       the commencement of the skirt. The coiffure was very simple and
                                       becoming--a silken cap, Tyrian-dyed; and over that a striped
                                       scarf of the same material, beautifully embroidered, and wound
                                       about in thin folds so as to show the shape of the head without
                                       enlarging it; the whole finished by a tassel dropping from the
                                       crown point of the cap. She had rings, ear and finger; anklets
                                       and bracelets, all of gold; and around her neck there was a
                                       collar of gold, curiously garnished with a network of delicate
                                       chains, to which were pendants of pearl. The edges of her
                                       eyelids were painted, and the tips of her fingers stained.
                                       Her hair fell in two long plaits down her back. A curled lock
                                       rested upon each cheek in front of the ear. Altogether it would
                                       have been impossible to deny her grace, refinement, and beauty.

In those days, a reader was conditioned to expect long paragraphs with long sentences, dense with description, but I wonder if today's reader would stick with it long enough to see the beautiful Tirzah emerge.

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Written by Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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