Describing characters is hard – ask any writer. We try to get past the surface descriptions that say nothing – "pretty woman" or "balding Vietnam veteran." Actually, those last three words say more than we intended. "Balding Vietnam veteran" is often a code for a harmless old man.
But the best way to describe a character was in Robertson Davies' "World of Wonders," the third book in the Canadian writer's Deptford trilogy, following "Fifth Business" and "The Manticore." If you haven't read these three books, do yourself a favor and get them now. You're in for a treat.
In "World of Wonders," Magnus Eisengrim, the magician who may or may not have been a killer, explained how he honed his skills. He roamed the world with a carnival, and learned to observe people at a fair, in what he calls "a mitt camp" -– a fortune teller's tent.
This section is a text book example of how to build a believable character for your novel.
"You have to learn to look at people," Magnus said. "Hardly anybody does that. They stare into people's faces, but you have to look at the whole person.
"Fat or thin? Where is the fat?"
Now there's a sensible question. Some people are round as apples. Others have fat stomachs or wide hips.
"What about the feet? Do the feet show vanity or trouble?"
Is she wearing sky-high Manolos? Or comfortable shoes cut to relieve the ache on his bunions?
"Does she stick out her breast or curl her shoulders to hide it? Does he stick out his chest or his stomach? Does he lean forward and peer or backward and sneer?
"Hardly anybody stands straight. Knees bent, or shoved back? The bum tight or drooping? In men, look at the lump in the crotch; big or small? How tall is he when he sits down?"
An interesting observation, that last question. I'm six feet tall, and when I sit down, I'm still taller than some people who are standing up.
"Don't miss the hands," the magician warns.
As for the face, which we writers often start with, the magician has this caution:
"The face comes last. Happy? Probably not. What kind of unhappy? Worry? Failure? Where are the wrinkles? You have to look good, and quick. And you have to let them see that you're looking. Most people aren't used to being looked at except by the doctor, and he's looking for something special.
"You take their hand. Hot or cold? Dry or wet? What rings? Has a woman taken off her wedding-ring before she came in? That's a sign she's worried about a man, probably not the husband. A man – big Masonic or K of C ring? Take your time. Tell them pretty soon they're worried; why else would they come to a mitt-camp at a fair? . . ."
Author Davies has given writers a blueprint for building a character. It's almost magic.
Win Elaine Viets' new collection of short stories, Deal With the Devil and 13 Short Stories. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com