In the opening scenes of the film , we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral.
One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms.
Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.
Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people.
His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see.
As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh.In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier.Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.What items would your character pack for a weekend away? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle?One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images.This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion.On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become.