How Would You Describe Them? – On Character Descriptions

A certain way through Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut begins letting his reader know the length and circumference of all the male characters’ penises. It’s a hilariously arbitrary character detail and running joke (especially since he gives himself dimensions that are essentially a muffin top). These descriptions reinforce the intent of the novel: emptying his mind of useless nonsense. Among that nonsense, Vonnegut seems to tell us is the arbitrary details which all writers inform themselves of their characters, and which God seems to have informed the universe arbitrarily with, because ultimately these descriptors and dimensions don’t matter much at all to the plot.

There’s a lot that can be said and gleaned from how a writer describes their characters. Vonnegut did a lot to put forth descriptions both of physicality and character backstory that was either abject/repulsive or attractive/virtuous. It aligns with his running assessment of the absurdity of morality in the universe, or there being any sense or reason to how “good” aligns itself or “works.” At the recommendation of a friend, I started reading my first Murakami novel, 1Q84, which I’m loving so far.

giphy-1I told my friend, Murakami’s descriptions of his characters are are lengthy but engaging. Murakami breaks what he describes into two categories: their natural features and their chosen features and mannerisms. In describing both, he presents how society reacts to each. How society reacts to a person’s attractiveness/ugliness, and how the person dresses or carries themselves as well as how society reacts to that composure. I’m not far enough in the tome yet to glean an overall purpose and intent behind this approach, but so far it’s engaging especially with the hidden aspects of the characters we see revealed early on.

FInally, I can’t resist bringing up Brett Easton Ellis and American Psycho in particular. It’s stunning that there is very little description of physicality in the book of any of the characters. Ellis instead describes their clothing at length. Cuts, mode, color, brand, to exhaustive detail. The person does not matter. It’s what they’ve bought that defines them in this hellish story, and it’s ultimately the essence of Bateman’s psychosis: there are no humans in this modern age, only consumers wrapped in products to the point that the products are what matter. He can maim and murder them to try to drain them however torturously of life but ultimately no one cares about the people wrapped in the products.

giphyI bring this up because I’m trying to be cognizant of my current work and what details matter in how I describe my characters. What matters most is how they are perceived by each other, rather than their own intentions and decisions in what they wear. It’s the essence of my story, who we are to the world- not just who we are trying to be. Thus I’ve been describing each character in relation to how another is perceiving them. It leads to some interesting revelations of the perceiver themselves rather than just the perceived.

I’ll be back soon with more excerpts from the work in progress, but before that I’ll likely break from drafting the novel by doing some more pop culture pieces. Whatever hits me as more important to work on during my writing time. As ever, I hope you’re all working on whatever art you’ve got to share with the world. Whatever your grind is, be about your grind. We move forward.


Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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