Revealing Character through Details

Is creating a character like designing a building?

Mies van der Rohe (German born, American architect, 1886-1969,) famously said, “God is in the details.” This quote is a reference to the fact that it’s the small, subtle design elements that can make a building (or even a book, perhaps?) transcend the common to become something unique and beautiful.

Interestingly, Mies van der Rohe is also credited with having said, “Less is more,” a reference to the theory that a few strong design elements will always outshine an excess of lesser details.

Mies van der Rohe may have been commenting on architecture, but it can be argued that his ideas apply just as well to fiction writing.

Put these two quotes together, and they add up to a valuable philosophy for revealing character in fiction: one clear and memorable detail can reveal more about a character than page upon page of general description.

Consider this example:

The woman was tall and had clear blue eyes. Her hair was a shade of blond that made her always seem to have just come from the beach, and her skin was liberally freckled. Her smile was wide, and she smiled often. She was slim enough to wear whatever she liked, but she favored blue jeans and t-shirts. She was almost never seen in a dress. Although she had passed her fortieth birthday two years earlier, she gave the impression of someone much younger.

There’s nothing too terrible about the above paragraph. It succeeds at creating a picture in the reader’s mind of the woman it means to describe. But what if we add one small detail?

Over the years, she’d perfected a certain posture, in which her right hand was almost always clasped over her left wrist. Practice had refined it to a shy, feminine gesture. Almost no one knew the truth – that the habit had been adopted in order to conceal a pale, fading, yet still distinct scar that crisscrossed her left wrist—a scar she’d given herself at the age of sixteen.

This detail tells us more about what makes this character unique than all the information about her appearance that preceded it.

The physical description, of course, is still valuable. Hair color, eye color, height, weight – they all play a part in revealing character. But tell me what’s written on the folded paper the character keeps constantly in his pocket, and you’ve told me a whole chapter of the character’s life story in just a few lines.

The perfect piece of information about a character can be physical (such as the scar on the woman’s wrist in the example above,) or behavioral (such as the woman’s well developed affectation used to hide the scar.) The type of detail given matters less than the type of information the detail reveals.

Here are three distinct examples:

He has Dad’s eyes, but Soda is one of a kind. He can get drunk in a drag race or dancing without ever getting near alcohol. In our neighborhood it’s rare to find a kid who doesn’t drink once in a while. But Soda never touches a drop—he doesn’t need to. He gets drunk on just plain living. And he understands everybody.

—S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

I wasn’t looking at her face, but at the part of her I could see with my head lowered: her blue waist, thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane, the large diamonds on the ring finger, which must once have been fine and was still finely kept, the fingernail at the end of the knuckly finger filed to a gentle curving point. It was like an ironic smile, on that finger; like something mocking her.

—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

To my surprise, my mother has  laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me. A soft blue thing with matching shoes. “Are you sure,” I ask. I’m trying to get past rejecting offers of help from her. For a while, I was so angry, I wouldn’t allow her to do anything for me. And this is something special. Her clothes from her past are very precious to her.

—Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

These three examples describe widely varying details—a boy’s natural state of intoxication, a woman’s manicured fingernail, a mother’s dress. But each description packs a lot of information into a short passage.

God is in the details. Less is more.

True of architecture. True of characterization.

Thank you Mies van der Rohe!

Do you choose unique details to reveal the nature of your characters? What about your favorite fictional characters – are there unique details that make them stand out in your mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

21 Responses to Revealing Character through Details

  1. JaniJon May 17 2012 at 10:30 am #

    What an excellent post– at first, it seems as if Mies van der Rohe’s philosophies are contradictory to one another, but you did a great job illustrating how the two can actually go hand-in-hand! Fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    • Julie
      Julie May 17 2012 at 11:58 am #

      Hey Jane! You make a good point – you could assume that if “God is in the details,” lots of details would be better than just a few. But I do think too many details can crowd each other out and then the best are lost to all the “noise.”
      Thanks so much for commenting; I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

  2. Tim May 17 2012 at 10:50 am #

    “But tell me what’s written on the folded paper the character keeps constantly in his pocket, and you’ve told me a whole chapter of the character’s life story in just a few lines.” Brilliant.
    I thought this was a bril article and definetly gave me food for thought:P

    • Julie
      Julie May 17 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Hey Tim! I’m so glad you liked the post! I always try to know what’s written on the pieces of paper in my characters’ pockets (whether I reveal it in the story or not.) 🙂

  3. Vanessa Di Gregorio
    Vanessa Di Gregorio May 17 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    I have to agree with Tim – that line is fantastic! Seriously – that would be PERFECT to frame over a desk!

    This was such a fantastic post, Julie! I LOVED it! This is going t be a post I look back on time and again while I write.

    And since Tim said it so well, I’ll just repeat him and say: Brilliant! 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie May 17 2012 at 2:36 pm #

      Aw, thanks V! I’m really glad you liked the post so much. I know I’ve said this before, but I tend to write posts that I need to read myself. (Maybe I’ll hang that line above my own desk…) 🙂

  4. Jennifleura May 17 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    Everyone seems to have said what I’m thinking: brilliant, brilliant post! Sorry for the repetition but I have to agree that that line is amazing. It’s difficult to choose the perfect details for characters, but it’s so worth it if you get it right.

    • Julie
      Julie May 17 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      I’m so glad you liked the post! You are so right when you say it’s difficult to choose the perfect details for characters. Occasionally I’ll think of something that defines someone early on, but more often it’s something that gets worked in during revisions, when I know the characters better. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  5. Chris May 17 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    Amazing post! Not only did you write it extremely well, but you also brought a lot of individuality and new perspectives to a topic that’s been talked about a lot. This is definitely going to give me a lot to think about when I work on my WIP- hope to see more from you soon! 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie May 17 2012 at 11:53 pm #

      Thanks Chris! So true that characterization has been turned around and looked at from every which way – glad to know I brought a new perspective to it for you. 🙂

  6. fiona Mar 3 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Thank yooooooooooooooou!
    This blog has triggered a total epiphany for me. My characterisation (or poor job of it) of one of my main characters has been a major weakness in my novel. You’ve given me a good idea on how to fix it. Many thanks!!!

  7. Mandy Eve-Barnett Jun 16 2014 at 10:21 am #

    There is always a fine balance between too much and too little description. We want the reader to have a sense of place and visualize the characters but balance those details out with propelling them forward into the narrative.
    You have some great points here and I would like to re-blog this on my Wednesday re-blog feature. Please advise if you are happy with that.
    Thank you
    Mandy

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 16 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Hi Mandy! I’m so glad you liked this post. I would be thrilled to be a part of your re-blogging feature! Please just credit me and this site. Thanks so much! 🙂

      • Mandy Eve-barnett Jun 16 2014 at 2:25 pm #

        Hi Julie,

        I always ask permission prior to re-blogging and always have the link so readers can check out your blog!

        Thanks
        Mandy

        • Julie
          Julie Jun 16 2014 at 2:37 pm #

          Hi Mandy, Thanks so much. I will drop by your blog as well. 🙂

        • Julie
          Julie Jun 18 2014 at 12:42 pm #

          Thanks Mandy! I will stop by your blog to check it out! <3

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