I discuss in my classes various ways personal historians can make the people in their stories more than mere names on the page. The people in your stories need to be more than simply “Grandpa Smedley” or “Aunt Eunice.” Your readers should see them as you saw them–not only how they looked, but how they talked and moved. What were their personality quirks? What made them unique? What made them important to you? It takes practice for writers to learn how to reveal this kind of information in a natural and interesting way. Beginning writers typically write what I call “all-points-bulletin” paragraphs after introducing a character–paragraphs that overwhelm the reader with details about their character’s personality and physical attributes. These kinds of paragraphs typically provide too much information at one time and really don’t SHOW what the person was like.
Looking for new approaches to help my students experiment with the way they reveal character traits in their stories, I came up with what I’ve jokingly called my “body parts” assignment. For this exercise, I asked my students to select a prominent character in their story and focus on one aspect of their body–their eyes, hands, feet, hair, voice, or heart, for example, or maybe something they wore–shoes, apron, hat, pocket watch, or hat. I then assigned them to write a paragraph or more using this “body part” or clothing article to reveal other aspects of their character’s life and personality. As an example, I showed them an early story I wrote about my Scottish grandmother, where I revealed things about her by focusing on her shoes.
And then there were my grandmother’s shoes—tiny shoes for a tiny four-foot-ten-inch lady, practical shoes for cleaning other people’s houses, walking from place to place because she had no car, walking the floor at night in the excruciating pain of kidney disease. No, I hadn’t walked in her shoes either.
My students were dubious when I gave them this assignment. (They’re adults and feel absolutely free to sneer, complain, laugh, or ignore me when I try to get them to try something new.) However, enough gave it a try and were pleased with what they created. When they read their work in class the following week, the response was so positive, other students have now tried their hand at it.
Here’s what some of my students wrote for this assignment:
Saturday morning, mother’s hands are white with flour. Long graceful fingers hold two old silverplated dinner knives. Palms are bent around the handles making deft criss-crosses in the greasy Snowdrift lump. Tiny pebbles appear in the flour. Her arms and hands are pale, graceful, beautiful, and purposeful, like a pianist bent over a piano. She hums an indecipherable tune as the pebbles become smaller and the flour disappears in the Snowdrift. When she deems the pieces small enough, she wipes her floury hands on a towel. The red polish on her fingernails appears like stains on the manicured oval nails.—Pat Milligan
Mama’s hands–long fingers with beautifully filed and shaped nails—would have been perfect for a pianist. Instead they had helped care for her 12 siblings, picked cotton under the hot Georgia sun, milked cows, killed chickens, grew and cultivated a victory vegetable garden, worked on the assembly line at Detroit’s Hudson Motors, cradled me as a nursing baby, used her green thumb to raise beautiful flowers, fried chicken dinners, gently cared for Daddy during his last days, and sat quietly rubbing the feet of her grandchildren and finally her great-grand-daughter while in a twilight zone-like coma in her final days at a nursing home.–Elsie Hale
I’ve always wished I had inherited Mother’s slender, graceful hands instead of Dad’s square, blunt ones. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been such a disappointment to her in my attempts at the piano. Mother’s fingers were made to play the piano, long, slender, and yet strong. They flew over the piano keys, hitting each note with a firm sure rhythm. She was a sensational piano plaer. Alas, I was terrible.
Mother was proud of her hands and she took care of them. Whenever she scrubbed the floor or cleaned with Lysol or bleach she wore rubber gloves. She washed her hands only with Ivory soap using a little wooden Fuller brush with natural bristles. She kept a bottle of Ponds lotion on the counter and slathered her hands with it after she washed them, working it into her nails. I never saw her nails dirty. She used a glass file to keep them clean and smooth. She had a little orangewood stick that she used to push back her cuticle so that all the little white half-moons at the base of her nails showed. I tried that, but I never could find my half-moons. Mother’s nails were all evenly matched ovals. I don’t think mine even came from the same set. They are all different shapes. Finally she polished each nail with a chamois polisher and what looked like silver polish from a little round jar giving them a smooth soft glow. –Betty Nelson
“Seig Heil!” my father’s voice rang out in mock hysteria in our living room, dark hair plastered low across his forehead, small black comb gripped under his nose to simulate Hitler’s moustache. My mother and I dissolved in laughter. It the early 1950s and my dad, Patrick, was performing an old skit from an RAF show staged by his squadron during WWII. He had the voice of chameleon, my father. A true mimic, he’d lost his native Irish brogue shortly after arriving in America, yet we never knew when Barry Fitzgerald might show up in our home…or Winston Churchill, Maurice Chevalier, or even John Wayne, for that matter. He put this talent to good use when he appeared as a non-professional in some plays at the Pasadena Playhouse during this time. Sometimes I’d accompany him to auditions. I was a shy pre-teen then, and I remember being amazed by the confidence my father displayed as he transformed himself into the character whose part he wanted, just by altering his voice.
When Dad phoned home, my mother and I did not always recognize his voice. He delighted in fooling us, occasionally pretending to be an obnoxious, oily salesman with a nasal twang, reeling us in until we finally caught on. This ability got him into trouble with my mother one afternoon when she answered the phone. “Patricia, my dear, how are you this fine day?” came the dulcet tones of an Irish male.
“I know who THIS is!” crowed my mother. “It’s my cute little Irish honey bun, isn’t it?”
There was a brief silence at the other end. “Ah, would that it were, Patricia. But I HAVE taken vows, you know,” said Father Murphy, our parish priest newly arrived from Ireland. –Sally Ramer
My mother smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. The red and white oblong pack was usually carried in a tan leather case. When it was time to light up, she would carefully unsnap the case and shake out a single cigarette, hold it between her lips just to the right of center while she slipped out the lighter from the little pocket on the outside of the case. Her first drag was always deep, exhaling the smoke in a narrow stream from between her lips. If she was sitting, visiting, she would always hold the cigarette in her right hand, elbow on the table or arm rest, and her wrist cocked to the side. Her long fingers with the extended cigarette seemed to emphasize whatever point she was making.–Carol Enos
I’m sure you’re impressed with the ways a character is illuminated by simply focusing on one aspect of his or her physical appearance. I’ve stressed to my students that it’s a technique they can use when it seems appropriate. I don’t recommend they use it often, as it will quickly become redundant. The point is, it’s good to experiment with different writing techniques. There’s more than one way to tell a story or develop a character. Don’t be afraid to try something new. This technique may not work for you, but then again, maybe it will be just the thing that nudges your writing to the next level.
Now you try it, and add another writing technique to your arsenal.