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Posted, Jul. 20, 2004
Updated, Jul. 20, 2004

QuickLink: A66542

Writing Tool #15: Reveal Character Traits

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Reveal character traits to the reader through scenes, details, and dialogue.

I once read a story in USA Today about a young teenage surfer in Hawaii who lost her arm in a shark attack. The piece, by Jill Lieber, began this way:

Bethany Hamilton has always been a compassionate child. But since the 14-year-old Hawaiian surfing sensation lost her left arm in a shark attack on Halloween, her compassion has deepened.

The key words in this lead are "compassionate" and "compassion." Writers often turn abstractions into adjectives to define character. One writer tells us that the shopkeeper was "enthusiastic," or that the lawyer was "passionate" in his closing argument, or that the school girls were "popular." Some adjectives — such as "ashen," "blond," or "winged" — help us see. But adjectives such as "enthusiastic" are really abstract nouns in disguise.

Though adjectives such as "popular" and "compassionate" convey a general meaning, they become almost useless in describing people. The reader who encounters them screams out silently for examples, for evidence. Don't just tell me, Ms. Writer, that Super Surfer Girl is compassionate. Show me. And she does:

The writer describes how from her hospital bed, Bethany Hamilton "tearfully insisted" that the 1,500-pound tiger shark that attacked her "not be harmed." Later the girl meets with a blind psychologist and offers him the charitable donations she is receiving "to fund an operation to restore his sight."

And in December, Hamilton touched more hearts when, on a media tour of New York City, she suddenly removed her ski jacket and gave it to a homeless girl sitting on a subway grate in Times Square. Wearing only a tank top, Hamilton then canceled a shopping spree, saying she already had too many things.

Now I see. That girl really is compassionate.

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The best writers create moving pictures of people that reveal their characteristics and aspirations, their hopes and fears. Writing for The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson describes a mother in desperate fear for the safety of her children, but avoids adjectives such as "desperate" and "fearful." Instead she shows us a woman preparing her children for school:

Then she sprays them. She shakes an aerosol can and sprays their coats, their heads, their tiny outstretched hands. She sprays them back and front to protect them as they go off to school, facing bullets and gang recruiters and a crazy dangerous world. It is a special religious oil that smells like drugstore perfume, and the children shut their eyes tight as she sprays them long and furious so they will come back to her, alive and safe, at day's end.

By re-creating this moment, Wilkerson leads us into the world of this struggling family, offering us the opportunity for empathy. The scenic evidence is supported by the spoken words of the children:

These are the rules for Angela Whitiker's children, recounted at the Formica-top dining room table:

"Don't stop off playing," Willie said.
"When your hear shooting, don't stand around — run," Nicholas said.
"Because a bullet don't have no eyes," the two boys shouted.
"She pray for us every day," Willie said.

Writing for the Maine Sunday Telegram, Barbara Walsh introduces us to a group of girls facing the social pressures of middle school. The story begins at a school dance in a gym that "smells of peach and watermelon perfume, cheap aftershave, cinnamon Tic Tacs, bubble gum." Groups of girls dance in tight circles, adjusting their hair and moving to the music.

"I loooove this song," Robin says.

Robin points to a large group of 20 boys and girls clustered near the DJ.

"Theeeey are the populars, and we're nooot," she shouts over the music.

"We're the middle group," Erin adds. "You've just got to form your own group and dance."

"But if you dance with someone that isn't too popular, it's not cool," Robin says. "You lose points," she adds thrusting her thumbs down.

My colleague Chip Scanlan might ask, "What is this story really about?" The words I choose lead me up the ladder of abstraction: Adolescence. Self-consciousness. Peer-pressure. Social status. Anxiety. Self-expression. Group-think. How much better for us as readers to see and hear these truths through the actions of these interesting young women, with their authentic adolescent vowel sounds, than from the pursed lips of jaded sociologists.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Some writers talk about reporting a story until they come away with a dominant impression, something they can express in a single sentence: "The mother of the cheerleader is overbearing and controlling." They may never write that sentence in the story. Instead, they review and try to re-create for the reader the evidence that led them to this conclusion. Try out this method on some of your stories.

2. Listen carefully to stories reported and written for National Public Radio. Pay special attention to the voices of story subjects and sources. What character traits do they reveal in their speech? How would you render that speech in a print story?

3. Sit with a notebook in a public place: a mall, a cafeteria, an airport lounge, a sports stadium. Watch people's behavior, appearance, and speech. Write down the character adjectives that come to mind: obnoxious, affectionate, caring, confused. Now write down the specific details that led you to those conclusions.

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