Character as Image and Voice


In real life we get to know strangers through our sense impressions of them––and we often form our initial opinions and judgements from what they look like, before we hear them speak.

Even when we engage strangers in conversation they might not reveal their deepest thoughts right away––if at all.

This is also the best approach when it comes to introducing fictional characters.

First let the reader see the character, and then let the reader hear them. 

Don’t try to impose your own judgement––as the author. Let the reader form their own judgement, based on the sense impressions you reveal.

No character is going to appear exactly the same to every reader, and you should allow that to happen, just as in a play, no two actors will portray the same character in quite the same way.

With this in mind, we can return for a moment to Elmore Leonard, and his statement: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

At first sight it might seem to contradictory to say on the one hand, “give the reader a visual sense impression of the character,” and then on the other hand, “avoid detailed descriptions,” but it isn’t.

If you think about it, there’s big difference between a visual sense impression and a detailed description, and you want to find some point that’s comfortable for you between those two extremes.

The skill of the writer is in detecting the seemingly trivial yet vitally important details.

For example it’s pointless to state that a character had ‘long brown hair.’ Half the population of the world have long brown hair.

However it might be more fascinating to know––say––that a character looked as if she ‘cut her own hair.’

Or conversely that another character had a hairdo that looked like it cost ‘several hundred dollars.’

We have given the reader no useful information by telling them that the character has ‘long brown hair.’

But we might have given so much information by telling the reader that the character looked as though, ‘she cut her own hair,’ that we need say nothing else about her appearance.

Let’s take a look at some of the micro-fiction we’ve been reading and see how the authors handle this.

…like this couple in their multi-pocket hiking shorts and sturdy Clarks…

Pamela Painter: Letting Go.

It’s beautiful. We are told nothing about the couple’s specific appearance, and yet these two trivial details tell us everything we need to know, and the characters spring to life before our eyes.

 More to the point, the author doesn’t even really tell us what to think, but leaves us to form our own judgement about the kind of people these are.

…the kid in dirty hightops and a sleeveless denim jacket that shows off a blue pitchfork tattooed on his bicep jogs forward beneath a backward baseball cap…

Stuart Dybek: Initiation.

Here we have more specifics, and perhaps we don’t need them all for the character to spring to life, but look at the poetic alliteration: blue-bicep-beneath-backwards baseball…

His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s.

Kim Addonzio: What Jimmy Remembers.

…a girl with green hair in the glassed-in booth reading a magazine, Madonna on the cover…

Kim Addonzio: Starlight.

…the daughter looks at me the way a girl does at the end of an old movie and she says, “my god,” says, “you’re an angel…”

Brian Hinshaw: The Custodian.

A woman who claimed to be part Iroquois read the sky at night…

When I saw you at the bar later, voodoo doll on a chain around your neck…

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro.

She was running out in bare feet, to get the mail during a thunderstorm.

I fell in love with her beautiful sweaters. She wore a different one every day. Solid ones, striped ones, loose ones, tight ones, bright ones, white ones. Cardigans, pullovers, short sleeves, long sleeves, crewnecks, V-necks, and daring cowls.

When Reverend Smawley plucked his right eyeball out—the plastic one…

Steven Sherrill: Alter Call.


Dialogue is almost always going to be the key to your characters. The subtle shifts in the way they phrase and nuance what they say will really bring to life. However it’s not enough merely to remember or invent. You have to inhabit your characters’ minds in order to bring them to life.

This is straightforward enough if your main character is based somewhat on yourself. You just give the character your only verbal idiosyncrasies (if you know what they are), and the character will live.

This is where your observation skills will really help. Listening on other people’s conversations will really help you with dialogue. Listening to your own conversations too. After all they are hopefully going to be conversations with someone else.

If you are like me, and the only conversations you have for days at a time are with your cat, then my heart goes out to you. Your cat will not be a great deal of help. Hopefully it helps with the mice.

One of the great things about modern technology is that you can go back and re-read emails from friends. I like the way that messages from my friends have the tones of their diction. Texts seem less useful for this, as they are more truncated, and not the real voice of the sender.

Emails are better than hand-written notes too, as their casual nature prevents the sender from over-correcting and formalizing.

Of course, you are combining the text of the email with your familiarity with the actual physical voice.

Speech patterns (and I’m not necessarily talking about dialect here) reveal personality, and as with image the patterns can be either conscious or unconscious choices on the part of the speaker.

A character might choose to use fancy foreign words where simple English phrases might work just as well. For example instead of saying ‘unflappability,’ he might say, “sang froid,” and even pronounce it with a French accent.

Again another character might use the fancy foreign word and mis-pronounce it.

The play, the Rivals, by Sherridan, features a character named Mrs. Malaprop, who sprinkles her dialogue with blundering use of inappropriate words.

“It was just a pigment of her imagination.”

“I’m suing you for definition of character!”

“I resemble that remark! “ (the Three Stooges).

There’s a strong temptation to make dialogue eloquent, after all we’re writers and part of training is learning to write correctly, however most real people don’t speak in correct American English, so in order to make your characters authentic, they shouldn’t always speak correctly.

One example is contractions, such as it’s for it is.

You might be sparing with contractions in the main body of your text, but it’s normal for people to speak in contractions, so your dialogue should utilize contractions whenever possible.

Let’s see how this all plays out in micro fiction.

“Three minutes, maybe five, they’re doing dope,” he yells. “Any longer, it’s sex. No respect for them who has to take a piss.”

“B’leve on the Lord.”

“We are fallen stars, he said to me,” whispered my mother, the formerly-upright piano. “You and me, he said. And then he would take my hand.”

“We were wishing your head could be on Pammy’s body,” Ed said. “You two together would make the perfect girl.”

“We were wishing your head could be on Pammy’s body,” Ed said. “You two together would make the perfect girl.”

“No matter how deeply I bury you in the gravel pit of my memory,” she said, “you come crawling back out.”

“They’re gold flakes,” Wallace said, reaching to touch them on his back. “Genuine.”

Tess held her hand against the textured gold on Wallace’s tattoo. She drew her fingers back. “Are not,” she said.”

“Am I snoring too loud?”

“You ain’t got no vapor barrier in the house,” the fat tin man wheezes. 

“He said, “What’re you thinking?”

“He said, “You know why you don’t like me, man?”

I said, “Lay it on me.”

He said, “The reason you don’t like me is because you don’t like yourself.”

I said, “Is that so?”

Memoir to Micro-Fiction Exercise.
Pick a memoir piece where you have more than one character.
Re-write the memoir, in whole or part, from the point if view of one of the other characters.
For example if you wrote about a car accident you were involved in then, re-tell the event from the POV of the other driver.
Now it will be fiction, as you are really getting distance between what you know, which would be yourself, and reality.
Limit 300 words.