10 Ways to Paint a Portrait With Words

kev21I often struggle with describing my characters. Right now, I’m banging my head against a wall trying to describe a teenage boy who has visions as more than a blond hunk. This is all the more frustrating because my mother was a portrait painter. Her paintings of friends and family hang on my walls, reminding me daily that a good portrait doesn’t just capture what someone looks like, but who they are. My favorite is a pastel portrait she did of my uncle Kevin.

When I was a child, he would arrive unexpectedly with surprises—a green corduroy owl, a recording of Oscar Wilde’s sad story, “The Happy Prince.” He taught me how to play poker. At the time I didn’t know he suffered from PTSD from the war, or that sometimes my parents didn’t know where he was living as he drifted in and out of our lives. It seems fitting that his portrait is done in pastel, a medium you literally have to spray with lacquer or it will rub away.

Artists have many tools for getting a portrait right, including the medium they choose. Writers only have words. But in looking at some of the outstanding character portrayals in literature, I can see that writers have many techniques for painting portraits using words. Here are a few:

1. Let some of the painter seep into the portrait. This portrait from Nabokov’s Lolita tells us as much about Humbert Humbert as it does about her.

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

2. Use unexpected adjectives and metaphors when describing a character. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath uses marbles and cotton candy to describe a character who is more than a southern beauty.

“Doreen came from a society girls’ college down South and had bright white hair standing out in a cotton candy fluff round her head and blue eyes like transparent agate marbles, hard and polished and just about indestructible, and a mouth set in a sort of perpetual sneer.”

3. Describe someone using words that are connected to some significant aspect of his or her life. In this quote from The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald inextricably links Daisy with her wealth.

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.”

4. The way you describe a muscle-bound guy can make a difference. Fitzgerald’s description of Tom Buchanan’s physique in The Great Gatsby tells us who he is.

“Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body.”

5. Showing how a character approaches a complicated task can reveal a lot about their personality. In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers creates a lasting impression of John Henry by showing us how he makes a biscuit man.

“He was like a tiny watchmaker, and he drew up a chair and knelt on it so that he could get directly over the work. When Berenice gave him some raisins, he did not stick them all around as any other human child would do; he used only two for the eyes; but immediately he realized they were too large—so he divided one raisin carefully and put in eyes, two specks for the nose, and a little grinning raisin mouth.”

6. Use more senses than just sight when describing someone. Telling us how someone smells can be very effective, as shown in these two contrasting examples from Raymond Chandler.

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” The Little Sister

“I smelled of gin. Not just casually, as if I had taken four or five drinks of a winter morning to get out of bed on, but as if the Pacific Ocean was pure gin and I had nosedived off the boat deck. The gin was in my hair and eyebrows, on my chin and under my chin. It was on my shirt. I smelled like dead toads.” 
 The Lady In The Lake

7. Use what a character is wearing to show us more than their fashion sense or lack of it.  Here’s an example from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces:

“Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius.”

And here’s another from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: “He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money.”

8. How a person moves can reveal a lot about them. Jonathan Franzen does this beautifully in this portrait of the aging parents in The Corrections.

“Down the long concourse they came unsteadily, Enid favoring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time.”

9. Pay special attention to the first glimpse we get of a character. I’ve never forgotten how Raymond Chandler introduces Terry Lenox in this opening to The Long Goodbye.

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in Rolls-Royce Silver-Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s foot was dangling outside, as if he’d forgotten he had one.”

10. You can say a lot about someone with a few well-chosen words. Flannery O’Connor nails the grandmother in her short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with this one line.

“She would’ve been a good woman,” said The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

These are just a few of the fantastic word portraits that are out there. They’ve given me a lot of ideas for ways to paint my own characters. I hope they help you!

Showing 3 comments
  • EB Moore

    This is hugely helpful. I’m going to save it to reread on a regular basis.

  • Carol D

    I agree EB. I want to reread this post every time I make up a new character. Thank you Emily!

  • Tori Whitaker

    Loved this article! Great examples.

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