I've often read that, in order to create vivid and memorable characters, you need two things; details and voice. To remind myself how this works, I look to examples of characters who stick with me.
Grandma Dowdel from Richard Peck's Newbery-award-winning novel, A Year Down Yonder is one such character. Here is a passage from the first chapter in the novel, the scene where the narrator, Mary Alice, gets her first glimpse of her grandmother after the Wabash Railroad steams into town.
As the train pulled out behind me, there came
Grandma up the platform steps. My goodness,
she was a big woman. I'd forgotten. And taller
still with her spidery old umbrella held up to
keep off the sun of high noon. A fan of white
hair escaped the big bun on the back of her
head. She drew nearer till she blotted out the
You couldn't call her a welcoming woman, and
there wasn't a hug in her. She didn't put out
her arms, so I had nothing to run into.
Nobody had told Grandma that skirts were
shorter this year. Her skirttails brushed her
shoes. I recognized the dress. It was the one
she put on in hot weather to walk uptown in. Though
I was two years older, two years taller than the last
time, she wasn't one for personal comments. The
picnic hamper quivered, and she noticed. "What's
"Bootsie," I said. "My cat."
"Hoo-boy," Grandma said. "Another mouth to feed."
Look at the details.
1. her spidery old umbrella held up to keep off the sun
2. her fan of white hair that escaped the bun(love that verb)
3, the fact that there wasn't a hug in her
4. her skirt that is longer than is in fashion
5. her language "Hoo-boy."
With just a few details, Richard Peck has given readers a clear picture of Grandma Dowdel. She's a feisty, determined woman who cares not a lick for things like fashion and who is not outwardly expressive of emotion.
It's the particulars of the spidery umbrella and the white hairs escaping the bun and the skirt that is a tad too long that make Grandma Dowdel a real character.
Like most humans, my first drafts are full of bland images. Writing the first draft is just finding the story. It's constructing the skeleton. It's the time when I get to know my characters. In real life, when you meet someone new, you cannot possibly understand their deepest motivations immediately. You cannot understand how to sum them up in a single gesture or detail. So when you are writing a first draft, you must give yourself permission to keep going and not worry about how bland the details may seem. (Or, at least most of us need to do this. There are exceptions to everything.) You know what Anne Lamott says about first drafts in Bird by Bird. That's still some of the best advice I've ever found.
When I really want to feel inadequate, I re-read passages like this one from the first page of Madame Bovary.
"Keeping himself in the corner behind the door so that you could hardly see him, the new arrival was a country boy, about fifteen years old and taller than any of us. His hair was cut straight across his forehead like a village choirboy's; he looked sensible and very shy. Although he was not broad shouldered, his black-buttoned green suit seemed tight under the arms, and it revealed through the slits in his cuffs a pair of red wrists accustomed to going bare. His blue-stockinged legs emerged from yellowish trousers held up by suspenders. He wore heavy hobnail shoes, badly polished."
Badly polished. That always gets me, when I read this passage, as if Flaubert had not already bowled me over with the particularity of his description, with the red wrists peeking out through the slits in the boy's cuffs. As if that were not enough, he includes these last two words, which add so much! What does it mean that the shoes are badly polished? That this boy is not as well tended to as he might be? That he has perhaps polished his own shoes, rather than having them polished by a servant or a parent, but that nonetheless the effort has been made? Someone has at least tried to polish the shoes.
See how this works? When you read a description like that, your mind automatically poses questions. Flaubert has planted details which intrigue you as a reader. You don't quite understand what they signify about the character and so you must keep reading.
Next time I'm going to talk a little more about details. I'm going to suggest a couple of essays you might want to read on the subject, in case you haven't already seen them.