Monday, November 4, 2019

Still Life Pictures that Paint Moving Character Portraits

         To portray a person to readers, whether that person is a fictional character or an actual human, a narrator or a protagonist presented by an omniscient narrator, avoid telling readers about him/her/them in opinion-based adjectives and judgment-laden revelations. For example, readers won't enjoy fully engaging with a character described to them as an "untrustworthy gossip" as much as they will enjoy figuring out that character trait for themselves within an implied description, such as: "Under the table, out of Amy's view, Nancy typed on her phone: 'AMY GOT DUMPED BY JOHN LIKE WE ALL KNEW SHE WOULD!' Then she typed a string of crying-laughing face emojis." The latter description of Amy's phone screen will make readers see Nancy's betrayal and decide for themselves that she is an untrustworthy gossip. The emotional impact of an illustrated tangible object--the phone and text message--has far more power than a merely "telling" phrase. 

          Using tangible objects to imply characteristics about a person is a fine way to "show, not tell" in a poetic prose portrait. Try it yourself with the following writing prompt:

          Arrange a “still life” picture of a person’s private space that evokes a mental character sketch through the implications of the assembled objects. Describe in detail such possessions as clues to reveal details, subtly, about the collector/character/narrator. Here is a still life picture of a corner of my own private workspace. What can you infer about ME from this still life portrayal? 

I have shown you implications about myself as a poet with a new book, and as a visiting author who conducts poetry workshops. I have shown you that I seem to value plants and views of nature, that I might collect rocks, that I need an overhead fan in my office, and that I probably read and highlight memorable passages, given the number of highlighters in the mug. The mug also reveals that my highlighting might be for students' papers, since it says, "Teaching is a work of heart." So, you can infer that I am a teacher. Furthermore, you can infer from the placard on the windowsill, which says, "To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world," that someone values my presence enough to give me that gift, and that I value that expression of appreciation enough to want to see it as a daily reminder. (You can also infer, from the fact that I added commas above to my transcription of plaque's message, that I am an editor!) Do you see how that list of items gives us the basic bullet points to build a more layered character?

          But now, look what can happen when I show a character interacting with this collection of objects, to suggest some more psychologically intriguing characteristics that readers can infer--characteristics that will engage the reader and advance the plot. Let's imagine that a different woman inhabits my office, and each day, before she sits down to work at her desk, she picks up the placard and runs her fingers over the words 'but to one person you may be the world,' as she sighs wistfully. Then she dusts off the placard, sets it down like a holy relic, inhales deeply, and settles down onto her chair to start her day. Spin a tale from that daily ritual!  What if I add other objects to the scene, like a pile of wadded-up tissues beside a torn-up, hand-lettered envelope showing the character's name, "Nancy," inside a shakily drawn, red heart? Plots can build upon such subtle details. Allow your readers to play investigators or psychologists as they explore the worlds you lay before them. 

          Try setting up your own still life pictures to evoke a character and a plot. Experiment with adding and removing carefully chosen objects to focus on providing images that deepen your characterization and propel your plot. As in poetry, details should have a purpose; this exercise will strengthen your focus on meaningful word choices and keep you from bloating your prose (or poems) with unnecessary details. Now go write!