Handling Character Descriptions A La Tom Wolfe

Handling Character Descriptions A La Tom Wolfe

I’d never been so happy to sit and watch Penny play soccer as I was the other day. The rain from earlier in the afternoon brought with it fresh tropical air and a blue-streaked sky, and it was good to sit back and watch the kids do normal kid things. The league has taken great pains to reduce COVID risk: the teams are small, the drills are spread out, and the scrimmage time is short, to name a few things. The field where she and Nick play sits at a slight elevation, surrounded by a giant pond with a sprawling hospital campus in the background. On the north side of the field is another, larger lake, with a wakeboarding water park, climbing tower, and mechanical zip-lines.

As I struggle through my character descriptions, I want to take a look at how a character description master does his thing and what I might be able to incorporate into my writing. On the drive to Florida, we listened to Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, and I was struck by how vividly Wolfe sketched each character. He’s famous for doing a few things: 1. He presents characters from different points of view so that the result is multiple character descriptions of the same character. 2. He uses unconventional means to start a character description. See this excerpt below:


I am Charlotte Simmons

Rather than do the usual thing of going straight into a physical description of Hoyt, Wolfe uses the scene to make Hoyt active and create a sense of movement. So, in addition to getting the information of what Hoyt looks like, the reader gets the picture of Hoyt looking in the mirror, checking himself out, thinking he looks pretty hot because he’s got great teeth, a masculine square jaw, hazel eyes, and he’s jacked! The physical description is active in this scene.

First They Killed My Father

Here’s another example of the same thing, but in a less flamboyant style. The author, Loung Ung, offers a description of her mom from her perspective as a child, overhearing her mother’s friends talk openly about how beautiful she is. In this way, we can picture Ung’s mother moving through the house, handling domestic life (and reprimanding Ung) with effortless grace and beauty.

It looks like well-executed character descriptions do two things:

1. They serve to fill the scene and become part of the movement of the scene.

2. They serve to reveal the interior life of the character by only mentioning pertinent physical details, i.e., Hoyt is jacked therefore maybe he’s vain; Ung’s mother is beautiful, so much so that her friends envy her, therefore maybe she’s conservative in her ideas of femininity and is not endeared to her daughter’s tomboy tendencies.