How should we describe the characters in our novels?
December 27, 2015
‘HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WOMAN?” was a question posted by Caleb Pirtle III in Caleb and Linda Pirtle in December. It was interesting and thought provoking. I liked it so much that it urged me to answer in yet another blog post where I will try to elaborate on his thoughts or widen them with my own view on the topic. I may even widen the topic itself and end this post with yet another question: “How do you describe your man.”
First things first, let’s ponder about what Caleb had written, then describe my own views and experiences.
Caleb said he doesn’t like stick figures. When he is introduced to major characters he wants to know what they look like or what they think, quoting Robert Crais: “When you feel the need to describe a character, restrain yourself from showing off your mastery of the language and ownership of a good thesaurus. Describe the character as some other character would see her.”
All authors experiences their characters in different ways, so I’d say we are all entitled to meet our characters and choose the way we describe them. We give them life, personality and physiognomy.
Personally, I would never describe my character “as some other character would see her.” I have never been granted that opportunity by my own characters. They come, stare at me and demand to be who they are and ask me to portray them as they appear to me.
I see them: facial features – bone structure, wrinkles, moles, eyes, their color and the color or discoloration of their skin. I see their hair styles and the color and quality of their hair. I see their bodily frame, roundness (or the lack of it) of shoulders, limbs, and length of fingers and color of fingernails. I watch their mannerism and the way they carry themselves. I listen to the velocity of speech and smell the specific fragrance around each of them as they enter into my field.
I see them, I smell them and I never try to negotiate. I learned to never negotiate in my attempt to portray them the way some other character would see them. My characters want me to show what they want and what they want to say. Otherwise,they don’t say much at all.
My characters are capricious, and they are in charge. Even when I think I am in control as a creator, they show me the opposite. The more I spend time with them, the more I realize that they are definitely in charge. They know what they want and how they want to appear in the reader ‘s mind. There is no option for me to ever explain the way “other characters might see them.” They wake me up early in the morning and I learn what they have in store for me for that day.
I often feel used by my characters as I can’t control them, change them or make them “different” for the sake of the story. I have the feeling that the story has already been told, and they have chosen me as the preferred storyteller. My job is to narrate the story the way they want it told. They don’t want me to tailor the story to suit anybody’s need – including my own.
Those who follow my writings, my novels and short stories know that my characters are not the easiest ones: they are demanding, structured, deep, often extreme and disobedient.
In the novel Fiume – the Lost River, the heroine, Beatrice Szabo, lived the entire century. She told the story I was writing down, and every time she sat next to me, she looked at me with her stern eyes as if telling me ‘be clear, precise and faithful to all you see and hear.’ I was.
I met her when she was just a young girl falling in love with a mysterious man. But regardless of her age, she never went easy on me. When she was a young woman, she was more confident with our relationship, leading me with more ease but the same determination. As the story of war, displacement and peace neared its end, Beatrice was almost one hundred years old. She never lost the main traits of her personality. She had that stern look in her eyes, demanding every time, in many situations, for me to describe her looks, to pay attention on her bearing, her fine clothes, her sharp mind and her manner when in contact with the world.
Before I continue describing my relationship with my male characters, I want a reader to meet Beatrice in one of the episodes where she asked that her capricious personality comes out clearly and accurately. As she told me: “Look at me, here, straight into my eyes, pay attention to details, penetrate into my personality and stay consistent.”
I sat down on the small sofa with the glass of Scotch in my hand and looked at Beatrice.
Her eyes were green, like two green marbles. They were lively, clear as mountain lakes, keen as the keenest blade, at moments completely transparent.
“What kind of eyes do you have, Beatrice?”
“To see you better,” she replied and we both burst into a roar of laughter. I took several more sips of Scotch. Then Beatrice repeated: “To see you better. Why are you lying to me? What do you want of me?”
“Then be good and go home. We will say goodbye to each other now, and you will get out of this house immediately.”
At first I thought she was joking, but the expression on her face began to transform her. Beatrice’s eyes became darker, taking on the color of overripe olives. Her voice changed, and I had the impression that it suddenly became cold in the room. Her breathing became heavy and hollow. I made no effort to rise, so she said:
“Get out,” and started to call for Mario.
“Beatrice, Beatrice, I’m telling you the truth.”
“Get out of here with your truth,” she said, and now she called for Leo.
The two men: Mario and Leo showed up.
“See this man out,” she said and picked up the newspaper from the chair.
I invoked her once again, and her response was: “Get him out of here.”
In a following blog-post, I will discuss my relationship with my male characters. It is a difficult relationship as I open doors to very difficult men who are trying to outsmart me, subjugate me in some way as if they are trying to test me. I am well equipped to be rendered the treasure of their complexity and uniqueness. Plain and easy – they are not!
As one reviewer said: Branka is a writer of exceptional talent who traverses cultural, historical and linguistic barriers in her writing with a passionate fluidity. I have read Branka’s novel “Fiume – The Lost River” which tells the story of migration and place through the mysterious journey of a handful of characters. Branka’s work has the great virtue of capturing the essence of place and nation with a seamlessness found only in the works of great writers.
She wrote: “In 1992 I left my country as violence, crime, injustice and madness of all sorts took place as a consequence of the fall of Yugoslavia. Thus began her odyssey as a writer.
In 2001, Branka wrote Little Lies, Big Lies, was published. This was the first volume of a trilogy called Spanish Stories. Cubrilo had obtained a scholarship from the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to travel to Andalucia to research the cultural and historical settings of Cadiz. Upon her return to Sydney, she wrote The Mosaic of the Broken Soul, a poetic memoir of a writer. Branka Cubrilo lives in Sydney with her daughter Althea.