Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Painting Portraits with Words

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Painting Portraits with Words

Article excerpt

Probably the most effective quick hits on character deal with how a person looks. Like it or not, appearance is the gateway to character, and you can surmise whole lives from a quick glance at someone passing on a busy street.

Novelists often describe their main characters in excruciating physical detail. Magazine profile writers dwell on certain aspects of appearance as a tool for developing their explanations of what makes interesting personalities tick. But newspaper writers seem uncomfortable with physical descriptions, which seldom show up in even long stories. Of course, most major newspaper stories appear with photos of the principals. So some reporters have argued that a text description isn't necessary. But think about your own reading. It's the text description that creates the image in your mind, and you often bounce back and forth between a text description and a photo as a way of comparing the two.

Besides, a text description can zero in on distinctive aspects of appearance in ways that a photo can't. Note how complete a portrait Randy Gragg, the Oregonian's visual arts critic, manages in these few words about a portrait artist who uses paint, instead of words.

The artist, Gragg notes, is a huge man. And, "on one wrist, he wears a giant silver bracelet, held in place by an industrial strength clasp from a hardware store. On one finger rests a ring the size of a small dinner plate. A tiny earring provides counterpoint to the trademark leather jacket and grease-stained jeans."

A wire service description of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the absent-minded social misfit portrayed in the movie Awakenings, was even more economical. The reporter, noting that Sacks had been laid off at his old hospital, followed the bumbling physician as he "rumbled into his old clinic ... long, blue shirttails hanging untucked," wearing "giant sandals" and a "black tie still loosened to the chest and dangling far to one side."

Such quick bits of physical description helps create a mental image of characters, which makes their spoken words far more meaningful. A victim of sex abuse is "a chubby girl in gray athletic sweats" who lights a cigarette as she describes how it happened. A woman who speaks to students about black pride is "tall and proud" as she dominates the stage. And a tough cop is a "5-foot-9, 200-pound bearded undercover narcotics officer who races cars to relax."

Because we live in one of the world's greatest consumer societies, what we own is also a key to our character. …

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