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.


On Catching Up with Friends

My neighborhood Ready Pet clinic is busy today. I came in earlier hoping I could do a walk-in with my cats, but they had nothing available until now which means that today my cats have had the misfortune of two round trip car-rides to the vet instead of one. My elderly cat, Minnie, hissed and spat when I put her in her carrier the second time. Poor her. Coming from a family that likes pets in theory (but not in reality), it occurs to me to wonder why I continue to own pets. I suppose I like to care for them and dote on them somewhat. I mean geez, here I am writing about them. My pets also amuse me. Even so, I’m not very hopeful for the 14-hour car ride to Florida with my animals.


Air Travel Is Not What It Used To Be

Sitting at the Orlando International airport, air travel is in a sorry state. I’m struck by the empty spaces peppering the ticketing counter, which under normal circumstances would have been packed with families vacationing to Disney World, and kids in mouse ears. I haven’t seen a single set of mouse ears yet. Earlier this year I did a lot of air travel. I think I flew four times in January while still mobilized and it was, normal. And fun (even when we missed a flight). I guess we’ll all get used to this.


To be Happy is to be Productive

Penny and I journeyed back from our trip to San Antonio this afternoon. While I’m glad we made the trek out to see my friend J, I’m dismayed about the inevitable second Coronavirus wave about to crash. The news today is not promising. The barefaced people walking around the Buc-ee’s gas station store today was not a good sign. And I’m mentally preparing myself for when the schools finally announce that the 2020-2021 school year will be in part, if not completely, virtual.


How to go From Concrete to Abstract in Personal Essays

Yesterday one of my best friends stationed in Germany messaged me to say she was bombing into Texas for 24 hours on some military-related duty. Unfortunately, it was San Antonio, not Houston, where she would make her Texas pit stop.

“It’s not that far!” I had said, “It’s only three hours. I’ll come with Penny. We’ll have a girls’ trip. We’ll spend the night. We’ll see the Alamo!” I made the mistake of telling Penny. She packed her school bag with a set of pajamas and a stuffy.