When I first read the New Journalism manifestos by Tom Wolfe in the late 1970s, they changed forever my vision of narrative. In spite of my Ph.D. in English, I realized for the first time that a narrative had parts and that each part lent to a story a power of its own. I began thinking more critically and practically about scenes, then dialogue, then the third-person point of view.
Wolfe stumped me with his call for status details (status being an interesting word in the era of Facebook). I knew that Wolfe often wrote about the tensions created by social class; status in that context of his work must involve the signifiers of wealth and upbringing, whether you attended Brown or Rhode Island College, ate at Bern’s Steak House or McDonald’s, drank Guinness or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Many of us influenced by Wolfe have adopted a broader definition of character than the word “status” suggests. To bring a person to literary life requires not a complete inventory of characteristics, but selected details arranged to let us see flesh, blood, and spirit. In the best of cases – when craft rises to art – the author conjures a character that seems fully present for the reader, a man standing against that very light post waving you over for a conversation.
Beyond the need for details, Wolfe is never specific enough for me on where to find them or how to use them to construct literary character, especially what to include and what to leave out. So I began a search for writers who were good at drawing character in language. Then through a process of close reading and reverse engineering, I tried to define the kinds of evidence used by expert writers.
I found a good model in “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright, a history of radical Islam leading up to 9/11, a book that won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2007. I served on that Pulitzer jury and still remember how Wright’s narrative distinguished itself (with two other finalists) from among more than 400 entries. If I can adapt a catch phrase to describe the heart of Wright’s accomplishment, it would be this: He is an expert at keeping it real.
About halfway through the text, Wright introduces us to John O’Neill, chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section. O’Neill will be assigned to lead a team on a mission: to bring back Ramzi Yousef, suspected in the first attack on the World Trade Center, from Islamabad to the United States. As is Wright’s habit, he offers a full paragraph to describe O’Neill’s character, personality, and values:
For many of the agents in the room, O’Neill was an unfamiliar face, and no doubt it was odd to be suddenly taking orders from a man they have never before met. But most had heard of him. In a culture that favors discreet anonymity, O’Neill cut a memorable figure. Darkly handsome, with slicked-back hair, winking black eyes, and a big round jaw, O’Neill talked tough in a New Jersey accent that many loved to imitate. He had entered the bureau in the J. Edgar Hoover era, and throughout his career he had something of the old time G-man about him. He wore a thick pinky ring and carried a 9-mm automatic strapped to his ankle. He favored Chivas Regal and water with a twist, along with a fine cigar. His manner was blue and profane, but his nails were buffed and he was always immaculately, even fussily, dressed: black double-breasted suits, semitransparent black socks, and shiny loafers as supple as ballet slippers – “a nightclub wardrobe,” as one of his colleagues labeled it.
Would that I could write a character paragraph that worked so hard. Perhaps I’ll be able to someday if I can compile and name the elements of character harvested from Wright’s description. From top to bottom (in the paragraph and in the corporeal O’Neill) they include:
Hair style: slicked-back
Facial features: winking black eyes, big round jaw
Speech patterns: tough talk in a New Jersey accent
Cultural background: (not specified, but Irish-Catholic)
Mannerisms: buffed nails
Gestures: gun strapped to ankle
Tastes: scotch and water with a twist, a fine cigar
Brand labels: Chivas Regal
Jewelry: thick pinky ring
Clothing: black double-breasted suits, black semitransparent socks, shiny supple loafers.
We now have an image of O’Neill head to toe, but how inadequate that list is compared to reading those details in context. Not only must such status words be mined through research and reporting, but they must be organized using some reliable strategies.
Show and tell: Although the character details stand out, they do so from a setting of abstract language. We learn that O’Neill cuts a memorable figure in an FBI culture of anonymity; that he was bluff, profane, handsome, and immaculate; that he reminded some of the old time G-men of “Untouchables” vintage. That’s quite a bit of telling in a single paragraph, well balanced by his showing all the specific evidence listed above.
Feel the tension: Wright captures the tensions and seeming contradictions within the character of a man whose work is so important to the defense of America. He is an old-time FBI agent who wears the pinky ring reminiscent of a mobster. He straps a gun to his ankle, probably right over those semitransparent socks. He projects a tough guy image but wears shoes “as supple as ballet slippers.”
Static action: Even in a paragraph that comes off as a series of static snapshots, the description of O’Neill appears in a narrative context. That first sentence does the trick: “For many agents in the room, O’Neill was an unfamiliar face, and no doubt it was odd to be suddenly taking orders from a man they had never before met.” O’Neill’s reputation preceded him into that meeting room and, in a sense, we are meant to “size up” the new boss based on our first visual impressions as well as rumors and anecdotes passed along by others. This strategy is so organic that readers get a sense of O’Neill’s character at the same point in the narrative that the other agents are introduced to him.
When I think of my own difficulties in describing character, I find solace in Wolfe’s description of this element of craft as the “least understood” of the narrative strategies:
This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene.
Such advice will always inspire bad writing along with the good, endless descriptions of assistant district attorneys pushing up their glasses or tugging on their earlobes. Editors lie in wait for such useless details and cut them. Wolfe was more into mission than decoration: “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
John O’Neill, we would learn from Wright, died on 9/11 under the rubble of the World Trade Center. You can find him, very much alive, within the pages of “The Looming Tower.”
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” and the upcoming “Help! For Writers.”