Josip Novakovich – Fiction Writer’s Workshop
Portraying a character
The way you present a character is at least as important as where you get the
character. Fleshing out your characters in various ways may take up most of the
story. So if you learn how to make your characters act on a stage, in your setting,
you’ll certainly be able to write stories. In this section you’ll find a variety of ways to
portray a character.
You can tell us outright what your fictional characters are like and what they do. If
you answered the questionnaire at the end of the previous section, you have a rough
character summary. Link the character traits that strike you as the most important
ones, and you’ll have a complete character summary. Here’s a classic summary
from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes:
This gentleman, in the times when he had nothing to do – as was the case for
most of the year – gave himself up to the reading of books of knight errantry;
which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting,
and even the care of his estate.
He so buried himself in his books that the spent the nights reading from
twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep
and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.
Cervantes goes on with the summary for several pages, but I think this excerpt gives
you an idea of how summary works. We find out Don Quixote’s work and leisure
habits, hobbies and passions, and the consequences of pursuing these – his
obsession with books results in his illness, madness.
The advantage of this method is its simplicity and readability: The writer quickly
focuses on the main character’s conflict and supplies the background we need to
know. You clearly set up expectations for what follows if you use this method in or
near the beginning of your story. Unless you botch the summary, your reader will
easily understand what the main character traits and conflicts are about.
The disadvantage to this method is that you are bound to tell rather then show what
your character is like – this method makes it hard to see and hear the character.
While the summary goes on, no dramatic action, no dialogue, takes place. We are
waiting. Still, the character summary is often worth risking; after you orient the reader
clearly and quickly, you will not need to stall the dramatic action (in order to supply
the background) once it begins to take place.
Here’s another example of how summary works, from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest
Hemingway. See how quickly we learn the character’s main concerns:
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not
think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot
to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it
painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he
had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner
comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him,
although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in
This is the opening of the novel. There’s no scene for us to visualize, but we receive
the basic outline of the character’s psychology and motivation. Later, we’ll hear the
character speak, see him act, but for now, we have some guiding ideas about him
(and the novel), which will help us understand what follows.
If this approach strikes you as too much ‘telling,’ try to show all the information in a
dramatic scene, and you’ll realize that you’ll need at least several pages to do it.
Since the action Hemingway is concerned with is not in the past but in the dramatic
present (which will follow), to go back into the past dramatically would dissipate the
novel’s focus. The summary gives us the relevant aspects of the past, so we can
stick with the dramatic present. While it’s not the most graceful method, it’s certainly
Repeated action or habit
This is the most common notion of character – the expectation of how a person will
behave in a given situation, based on the observation that she has behaved like that
many times, that she has the habit. This may be an effective way of describing a
person when you don’t have the time to go into the scenes to show us how she
behaves. Here’s an example from ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’
by Joyce Carol Oates:
She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck
to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own
was all right.
Now we know that in many situations the girl behaves this way. It would take an
awful lot of time to show this habit dramatically. If the sole point of the scenes were to show her habit, the scenes would be a strain on the reader. Describing it in a
summary will save you time. That’s the advantage. The disadvantage is that doing
this will delay your entry into your main dramatic scenes, where the story takes
The writer may let the character introduce himself to us. Again, this usually will be a
summary of the basic concerns, at least in the beginning. Notice that a self-portrait
can be achieved indirectly, as Hemingway’s narrator does in the example of
character summary from The Sun Also Rises. The narrator says, ‘Do not think that I
am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.’ In this
sentence we notice a certain sense of superiority, perhaps arrogance, on the part of
the narrator. When he characterizes Robert Cohn as ‘very shy and a thoroughly nice
boy,’ we hear the narrator’s voice. Who would speak of a twenty-year old as a
‘thoroughly nice boy’? We begin to surmise inferences about the narrator. The
narrator’s summary gives us an explicit portrait of Robert Cohn and an implied and
indirect self-portrait. Good economy.
Here’s a direct self-portrait by the narrator of Notes From Underground by Fyodor
I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an ugly man. I believe my liver is
diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know
for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I
have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious,
sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to
be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from
spite … My liver is bad, well – let it get worse!
Here, the advantage over the third-person summary is that the way sentences are
put together, the way of thought, is our picture of the character just as much as the
content of the thoughts. The Underground Man thinks in paradoxes, spitefully, in
intentional self-contradictions. He certainly prepares us for the humorous and self–
destructive acts to follow, so the disadvantages of this method, that it is not dramatic
and that it does not create pictures, are not significant.
Image is not everything, but it does account for a lot. Through how a person looks,
you may try to infer what the person is like – but appearances may be deceptive.
Still, to suggest the person’s character, you may select and interpret details, to guide
the reader’s expectations.
George Eliot uses this approach in the following paragraph from Middlemarch:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by
poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear
sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the blessed Virgin appeared
to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to
gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial
fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible – or from
one of our elder poets – in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.
Eliot draws a portrait of a Victorian lady who drives the modesty of her dress to such
an extreme that we are alerted by it. Immediately after this, Eliot gives us an inkling
of how to interpret the appearance. ‘She was usually spoken of as being remarkably
clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common sense.’ Miss
Brooke is so ascetic that she creates problems for herself; she imprisons herself in a
sterile marriage to a priestly scholar. Her appearance points in the direction of the
key conflict of the novel.
Eliot’s description works like a painting, in which the surface details suggest
character and mood. Sometimes the appearance of a character can indeed attain
the quality of a good drawing, a cameo, as in the following example from ‘Patriotism,’
by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima:
For the beauty of the bride in her white over-robe no comparisons were
adequate. In the eyes, round beneath soft brows, the slender, finely shaped
nose, and in the full lips, there was both sensuousness and refinement. One
hand, emerging shyly from a sleeve of the over-robe, held a fan, and the tips of
the fingers, clustering delicately, were like the bud of a moonflower.
Notice how, in the two above examples, the authors draw the hands more
successfully than the faces. While hands are often more difficult than faces to render
in paintings, in writing it’s the reverse, because writing can capture motion and
activity better than painting can. Hands can do more than faces can – unless we are
mimes, and even with mimes, hands are at least as active as faces. In describing
faces, it’s easy to resort to smiles and frowns, and difficult to strike a fresh image.
With hands, you can play with a large array of possibilities.
You can characterize someone even by his feet or his walk, as does Thomas Hardy
in The Mayor of Casterbridge:
His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as
distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn
and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference
personal to himself.
No matter how you describe a character’s appearance, your reader must be able to
see it. If you rely on an adjective and give us little besides, you will probably fail to
make us visualize anything. In his novel The Citadel, British author A.J. Cronin
makes this mistake and gives us an example of what not to do:
Late one October afternoon in the year 1921, a shabby young man gazed with
fixed intensity through the window of a third-class compartment in the almost
empty train labouring up the Penowell valley from Swansea.
This is the opening line from the novel. It accomplishes a lot in terms of setting, but
the adjective shabby adds nothing. Judging from our being in a third-class
compartment, we would get the notion of shabbiness anyhow, and shabby does not
in any way give us the look of the man. The Citadel is an excellent novel, and it’s
good to see that not everything needs to be perfect for a novel to succeed. If you
don’t want to describe appearance, perhaps you can get away with it — but then
don’t pretend that you are depicting. Scratch out the shabby.
In a scene you set your character in motion. Especially if she’s speaking, you can
show us the character in action, without needing to summarize and generalize,
although you may supplement the scene with a summary.
Christopher Isherwood in ‘Sally Bowles’ draws a character portrait in a scene with
‘Am I terribly late, Fritz darling?’
‘Only half or an hour, I suppose,’ Fritz drawled beaming with proprietary
pleasure. ‘May I introduce Mr. Isherwood – Miss Bowles? Mr. Isherwood is
commonly known as Chris.’
‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘Fritz is about the only person who’s ever called me Chris
in my life.’
Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her
shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her
‘Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?’
‘Sure. Go right ahead.’ Fritz caught my eye. ‘Come into the other room,
‘For heaven’s sake, don’t leave me alone with this man!’ she exclaimed.
‘Or he’ll seduce me down the telephone. He’s most terribly passionate.’
As she dialed the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted
emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her
hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little
Here we meet the character through her voice, appearance, action, as though in a
theater, and certainly, she is theatrical. She says, ‘He’s most terribly passionate.
This string of three adjectives is a kind of sophisticated excess that achieves a
theatrical sound, as though we were listening to an ironic actor. Isherwood guides us
to interpret the details, to see the little girl behind the sophisticated guise. The hands
are as dirty as a little girl’s. Emerald green for fingernail paint seems gaudy and
excessive; in her attempt to appear sophisticated, she fails, but achieves a charm,
especially through her flirtatious talk: ‘He’ll seduce me down the telephone.’ The
advantage of introducing a character in a scene is that we hear the character’s voice
and diction, and we see the person. So when the narrator analyzes this character, he
does not do it abstractly, but in conjunction with what we have seen and
experienced. The scene combines appearance, action and dialogue; it’s a highly
versatile approach. The drawback is that you can’t supply the background easily
without stalling a scene. Sometimes you can introduce a character through action, so
we begin to see her without needing much dialogue, as does Bobbie Ann Mason in
Leroy Moffitt’s wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals. She lifts threepound dumbbells to warm up, then progresses to a twenty-pound barbell.
Standing with her legs apart, she reminds Leroy of Wonder Woman. ‘I’d give
anything if I could just get these muscles to where they’re real hard,’ says
Norma Jean. ‘Feel this arm. It’s not as hard as the other one.’
The advantage of this method is that the reader is immediately with you, visualizing,
experiencing a scene. You can show and suggest what you could have told us about
– such as that Norma Jean is a fitness nut, a bodybuilder, a self-obsessed person.
The scene implies all this information without completely committing such a blatant
interpretation, so it’s less judgmental than a summary to this effect would be. (This is
most lifelike. We watch how people behave, we never see abstract qualities such as
self-obsession – we merely see the signs, symptoms, which we interpret.) The
author leaves the opportunity of judgment to the reader. Whenever you can, show
character traits acted out in scenes. If you are interested in directly judging your
characters, of course, rely on summaries and interpretations. (Judgment does have
its virtues – it’s abstract, possibly philosophical.) The disadvantage to the scenic
characterization method is that it’s awkward to construct scenes that are outside of
the main time frame of the story, unless you do flashbacks and memories. There’s a
limit to how many flashbacks you can handle without destroying the flow of the story.
And there’s a limit to how many things you can show, anyhow. Thus, although
scenes are probably the most attractive method of characterization, you probably
need to resort to summaries of relevant character deeds and inclinations outside of
the story’s time frame.
Most developed character descriptions combine two or more approaches. During the
course of a novel, we see a character in the ways the author chooses for us. That,
too is lifelike – you hardly ever experience all the aspects of a friend right away. It
takes time – different situations, communications, perceptions, and thoughts.
In Flannery O’Connor’s [story], we see three approaches: habit, summary and
The alarm on the clock did not work but he was not dependent on any
mechanical means to awaken him. Sixty years had not dulled his responses;
his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong
character, and these could be seen plainly in his features. He had a long tubelike face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose. His eyes
were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of
composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great
guides of men.
‘Strong character’ is an abstract summary. ‘A long tube-like face’ is a caricature,
appearance. ‘He was not dependent on any mechanical means to awaken him’ is a
habit summary. These traits give us a quick synopsis of this man, which lead us into
a scene, where we observe him in action.
Mr. Head went to the stove and brought the meat to the table in the skillet. ‘It’s
no hurry,’ he said. ‘You’ll get there soon enough and it’s no guarantee you’ll like
it when you do neither.’
Now we hear him talk. Later we’ll see him talk and act at greater length, each time
getting to know him better. O’Connor’s approach is incremental.
Here’s a portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic, drawn by summary of habits,
appearance and psychology. In ‘Ward VI,’ Anton Chekhov portrays the character so
gently that he undermines our trust in the diagnosis of madness; later in the story we
begin to perceive Russian psychiatry as mad, so that the character is quite justified
in feeling persecuted.
Ivan Dmitrich Gromov … is always in a state of agitation and excitement,
always under the strain of some vague undefined expectation. The slightest
rustle in the entry or shout in the yard is enough to make him raise his head
and listen: are they coming for him? Is it him they are looking for?
I like his broad pale face with its high cheekbones … His grimaces are queer
and morbid, but the fine lines drawn on his face by deep and genuine suffering
denote sensibility and culture, and there is a warm lucid gleam in his eyes. I like
the man himself, always courteous, obliging, and extremely considerate in his
treatment of everyone except Nikita. When anyone drops a button or a spoon,
he leaps from his bed and picks it up.
I think this is an excellent pattern not only combining summary and scene, but also
sympathy. Chekhov treats a type, a paranoid schizophrenic, with enough sympathy
that the type no longer threatens to reduce the human qualities and complexities of
Ivan’s character. Ivan has become a person for us.
Gustave Flaubert portrays Madame Bovary in a succession of different approaches.
Each time we meet her, we see a different aspect of her, in a new light, and in a new
[Brief Silent Scene] She made no comment. But as she sewed she pricked her
fingers and then put them into her mouth to suck them …
[Silent Scene, Habit, Appearance] As the room was chilly, she shivered a little
while eating. This caused her full lips to part slightly. She had a habit of biting
them when she wasn’t talking …
[Psychological Summary] Accustomed to the calm life, she turned away from it
toward excitement. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only
when it was scattered among ruins. She needed to derive immediate
gratification from things and rejected as useless everything that did not supply
this satisfaction. Her temperament was more sentimental than artistic. She
sought emotions and not landscapes.
And later, of course, Flaubert stages Madame Bovary, just as Isherwood does Sally
Bowles. I recommend this pattern of multiple approaches particularly for your main
characters in a novel. If your character is complex enough, you might try all the
approaches you can think of to understand who you are creating. Your readers will
probably get involved, too, trying to understand with you. The trick is to be genuinely
curious about the people populating your fiction.
Novakovich, J. (1995) Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Cincinnati, Ohio: Story Press,