Time for a history lesson in French Impressionism!
The name of this 19th century art movement was originally intended as an insult. Upon seeing Claude Monet’s Sunrise, a critic declared the piece to be merely a sketch— an impression— and not a fully realized work of art. Contemporaries viewed the bright colors and loose brushwork to be a radical deviation from accepted style.
Monet, of course, did not give a shit what his contemporaries thought. The rest is history.
“But what does French art have to do with storycraft?!” you may be asking (or not, since my readers are savvy and can already see where this is going).
There’s an awful lot to be learned about character description from Impressionist principles. When you describe a character, you are— in essence— forming an impression in the reader’s mind.
That’s it: just a few brush strokes of bright, vivid detail.
Keyword: vivid. So choose your details with extreme prejudice. Like the brushwork of an Impressionist painter, a skilled writer’s description may seem unplanned or haphazard. In truth, the short, casual stokes disguise a painstakingly crafted composition.
So what’s not a vivid detail? Pull out your driver’s license (apologies to the younger writers in the audience). Now describe yourself without using any of those listed attributes.
“But what’s left?” you might ask (again: or not).
Plenty. How a character moves. How they occupy space. How they orient themselves to their environment. How they make others feel. Any details that evoke where they’ve been or where they’re going. The list goes on.
Side note: I’m not saying to never describe hair/eye/etc— just do so when it offers significance. For example, in Norihiro Yagi’s Claymore series, the titular warriors have silver eyes, which mark their inhuman nature. (Also, you’ll never convince me “Silver-eyed witches” isn’t, like, the coolest).
Enough of my blathering. Let’s see this in action (another side note: during action is the best time to sprinkle in character descriptors). The Boneless Mercies, by April Genevieve Tucholke, offers a master class in painting characters.
Tucholke could have made things easy for herself. She could have started her story with one or two characters. Maybe three. She did not. Six fully-fleshed characters burst onto those first few pages, vibrating with life.
So how did Tucholke make her characters crackle with all the snap and spark of Frankenstein’s monster shocked to life? By choosing her details carefully (I assume. Ms. Tucholke, if I’m off the mark, please set me straight).
I’ll admit, six characters is a lot to throw at a reader for a first scene. A lot of names to keep straight (though only 5 characters are actually named). Tucholke juggles this by assigning vibrant details to each. Observe:
She was covered in black silk, head to toe. The silk clung to her curves and moved lightly through the air as if woven from soft summer breezes.
“But wait!” you cry (at this point, let’s just accept I’m arguing with myself). “That’s a description of clothing, not character!”
For this character, the unnamed “mark” who has hired the titular group to mercy-kill her, clothing is a part of her character. The light, silk clothes indicate she is a foreigner to their cold, northern Vorseland. Similarly:
She sighed and leaned against me, her soft arms against my hard shoulder. I pulled her black hair away from her cheek, gently, gently, my knuckles across her skin. Her hair felt heavy on my palm, and it bore scents of the south. Myrrh and frankincense.
First, this description is woven through action— always effective. Next, we learn a quick detail about the narrator: if her shoulder is “hard,” she’s likely fit and muscled. And finally, scent is used to describe character (again, to indicate her roots in a foreign land). Employ all the senses when rendering description. Tucholke does so throughout her story, to great effect (one character smells like snow, another like sea salt; both details hint at their homelands).
At first blush, the following excerpt reads as straight action:
I motioned to Ovie in the shadows near the cold hearth, she came forward, taut but quiet, like a snow cat on the hunt. Juniper, our Sea Witch, began to pray in the corner by a pile of hides and an old loom. Trigve stood by my side, and Runa simply watched us from the doorway.
Don’t forget that a character’s actions reveal who they are — both internally and externally— and are the easiest way to show vs tell. Tucholke is describing core traits of each character through their separate actions:
Ovie = silent, stoic, lethal
Juniper = the spiritual center of the group
Trigve = a loyal and dependable companion to the MC
Runa = aloof, independent, moody
Here are some other snippets of vivid character detail from the first pages.
Juniper’s hair was blond, with a faint shimmer of pale, pearly sea green, the same as all the witches of the Merrows.
Yes, it’s hair color; but it’s included for two reasons: 1) since green is an unusual color for hair, it sticks in our minds 2) the color signifies character origins
She’d glared at me, mouth tight above her pointed chin.
Physical description (pointed chin) woven through action (glaring)
Ovie’s short, lithe body was nestled into mine, our feet toward the dying fire.
Same as above: action + description
Runa was off by herself, as usual, her long legs stretching into the shadows.
I think you get the point. Make your characters do something with all those physical traits.
These excerpts were taken from the novel’s beginning. However, Tucholke continues to sprinkle physical descriptors throughout the course of the story to: 1) occasionally remind the reader of certain traits 2) build on previously-stated traits to form a fuller picture.
So what have we learned? First, cherry-pick descriptors that offer the most vivid detail. Second, incorporate description throughout story action. And third, I should stop arguing with imaginary readers.
Now go read The Boneless Mercies by April Genivieve Tucholke!
If you enjoyed this article, hit the FOLLOW button to be notified of future posts OR follow me on twitter @Cincy_Michelle
(OR do both. Both would be cool too)