All posts by mrfriesen

Character Description: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.

The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.

That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.
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Okonkwo is painted in bold strokes in these introductory passages of Things Fall Apart. In the first paragraph we get a sense of his physical presence, the second his litheness, and the third the development of Okonkwo from youth to middle-aged man. Achebe, like most other authors, shows us who Okonkwo is, shows us stories about him, so that we can get a sense of his character. This is far more interesting than simply telling us about him.

Character Description: Stoner, John Williams

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

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This description does something very different than most you see in literature: Stoner is not a hero, nor is he a villain. Rather, he is unobtrusive and forgettable. This description of Stoner is likewise. We all try to make our characters bigger-than-life, or endow them with super powers, or describe every minute portion of their being. Perhaps, when we create characters, we should make them more mundane—and in the process speak profound truths about the human condition.

Character Description: Middlemarch, George Elliott

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 to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense. Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister’s, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke’s plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared. The pride of being ladies had something to do with it: the Brooke connexions, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably ‘good:’ if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers–anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate. Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlour, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster’s daughter.

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Notice how this description of Miss Brooke is painted in metaphor: Italian paintings of the Virgin Mary, comparisons to the beauty of poetry or the Bible… No “Sarah is 5’11” with brown hair and blue eyes” here. Through this paragraph we gain a sense of Miss Brooke and her sister Celia, and we’re able to see the differences between the two of them. This is important: never create characters who are interchangeable. Each character must be their own universe, their own singularity, their own snowflake.