I visited my dad last weekend which meant two things:
Every meal was accompanied by coffee. (Sandwiches? Of course! Fried chicken? Sure! Stir fry? Why not!)
The TV was alternately tuned to vintage tennis matches or decades-old movies.
When we weren’t watching McEnroe mistreat his racket, we were regaled by a spoof-fest featuring The Naked Gun franchise.
I hadn’t seen the movies in years, but quickly remembered one of my favorite running jokes: sendups of character descriptions delivered in classic hardboiled detective style.
“There she was, just as I remembered her. That delicately beautiful face. And a body that could melt a cheese sandwich from across the room.”
It called to mind The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest, the perennial purveyor and unabashed celebrator of purple prose, which also features memorable character descriptions:
“Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.” Maxwell Archer, Mt Pleasant, Ontario, Canada
Of course, my affection for meeting characters on the page isn’t limited to parody. I enjoy any descriptive introduction that gives me a glimpse into not only the character’s physicality but the person—and the attendant strengths, weaknesses, desires and secrets that lie beneath.
Character introductions typically use action, backstory, another’s description, dialogue, physical attributes, clothing, and psychological attributes to give us that all-important first impression. Some use several simultaneously.
Take Margaret Atwood’s introduction of Iris in The Blind Assassin, for instance:
“I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours – less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.”
Such a masterful way to use physical appearance and clothing to establish mood and psychology.
In Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell makes an introduction via physical description that offers a sense of mood, psychology and background:
“Her shoulders were particularly wide and her neck slightly stooped with a kind of hump at the back and her legs were very long and thin. She looked as though she’d spent her life in a room with a very low ceiling.”
Then there’s this great example of action, specifically an inciting incident and crossroads crisis, in Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good:
“I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly.”
Delicious. (More delicious than coffee with sushi, in my opinion.)
A character’s emotional starting point, whether it’s in crisis or at rest, is a great way to measure growth and heat up plot.
There are also descriptions that are just plain fun to read, like Jeffrey Eugenides’ introduction of Phyllida in The Marriage Plot:
“Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”
Of course, some of the very, very (very) best character introductions are found in our very own Chicks’ books.
From Ellen Byron’s Agatha Award-winning Mardi Gras Murder:
Constance was reserved. She wore her gray hair in a meticulous bob and dressed in the kind of elegant Chanel-ish suit Maggie associated with ladies who lunched at traditional establishments like Galatoire’s in New Orleans.
She was half a head taller than her husband, Gerard, who introduced himself with pride as the president of the St. Pierre Parish Historical Society. A small man with a compact build, the shape of his bald head reminded Maggie of an incandescent lightbulb. She understood why Gran insisted she don a different outfit; Gerard was the kind of old-fashioned dresser who wouldn’t be caught dead without a sport coat, even on Louisiana’s most humid days.
From Jennifer Chow’s Mimi Lee Gets a Clue:
A furry white head popped up from the box and blinked at me with ocean-colored eyes.
“Mimi,” my sister said, “how can you say no to these baby blues?” Alice was a sucker for waif faces. Maybe that’s how she wrangled twenty-five kindergarteners Monday through Friday and still remained smiling by the afternoon.
I frowned at the Persian cat. “Alice, you know I prefer dogs.”
She gave me her peppy teacher’s smile. “Maybe you just need to have the right kitty.”
I hesitated, imagining sharp claws and giant hairballs.
“Please.” She placed the box in my hands. “For me.”
How could I say no to my baby sis? “We’ll see,” I said.
“You’ll love him, I bet.” Alice squeezed my shoulder. “Time for me to get back to class. The new principal’s a real stickler about time.”
I waved to her as she left.
As soon as I took the cat out of the box, he sauntered over to the plateglass window and stretched out in a sunny spot to nap. This kitty put the “cat” in catatonic.
From Leslie Karst’s Dying for a Taste:
“The damn grease trap is backed up… again,” he explained, shoving the phone impatiently into the pocket of his checked chef pants. “And they supposedly cleaned it out last Friday.” Dad shook his head and pushed the sleeves of his blue sweatshirt up over his beefy forearms. “Emilio said you were looking for me earlier. What’s up, hon?”
“Papà.” I looked into my father’s eyes, deep blue and set off by leathery skin and rows of wrinkles. The result of age, but also a lifetime of long hours in fishing boats out in the sun. “Oh, Papà,” I said again, and then started to cry.
And from Lisa Mathews’ Cardiac Arrest:
A shadow fell over Dorothy’s legs.
“Well, well. Imagine meeting you here, Dorothy. Have you gotten those crack-of-dawn laps in yet?” Gladys Rumway, wearing a tentlike, aqua-print dress, wraparound sunglasses and a huge floppy hat, gave her a magenta-lipsticked smile.
“Not yet,” Dorothy admitted. “I was just about to hit the water.” She reached for her bathing cap, hopeful of a quick escape. Gladys was a talker.
“I just don’t get why you’re always swimming, at your age,” the big woman went on. “You know what really killed Esther Williams? Too much chlorine.”
Pure character description MAGIC. I love all of these!
An introduction to a character is more than meeting someone new. It’s a kind of job interview, a chance for us to assess abilities, vulnerabilities, what someone might be capable of—both good and bad. It’s an experience to be filed under You Never Have a Second Chance to Make a First Impression. And one of my favorite parts of starting a new book.
How about you, dear friends? What do you like to see when you meet a character? Do you have any favorite character introductions, either those you’ve read or those you’ve created? Please share!
Image from Pixabay on Pexels.co