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  3 Methods of Character Revelation (video)

In this video, we discuss the three primary methods of character revelation:

  • Appearance
  • Dialogue
  • Action

Don't rely on a character's appearance as your primary means of making that character real on the page. It is best to draw a character in brief, specific strokes--like flashes of light that illuminate her.

Take, for example, the narrator's description of her murdered sister in the novel Under the Harrow, by Lynn Berry:

She likes red lipstick, and will never again stand in the aisle at a chemist's, testing the shades on the back of her hand. She likes films, and will miss all of the ones coming out at the holidays that she planned to see. She likes pan con tomato, and will never again come home from work and mash tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and rub it onto grilled bread, and eat it standing in her kitchen.

There is description here, but it is so much more than that. A character who likes red lipstick is different from one who likes bare lips or lip balm. A character who buys her lipstick at a drugstore, rubbing it on the back of her hand, is different from one who buys it at a department store cosmetics counter. We see the sister mashing garlic and olive oil; there is decadence in that image of her, an understanding of the sister's relish for living.

However, there are times when the way a character's appearance is described speaks volumes about the person's nature, what she's made of or what a life has come to. This week, you're reading Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov (see Module 1 Reading). Here is the description of the mother in the story:

Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring.

This is a woman without vanity, a woman who perhaps is sad or who for whatever reason is not making the ordinary efforts that "other women of her age" make to hide their age or imperfections from "the faultfinding light of spring."

And here is a sharp contrast in this excerpt from Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, describing the protagonist, Ree Dolly:

Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.

In this brief description, which appears in paragraph two of the novel, we get a strong sense of the character as someone who is capable, unflappable despite her age. The use of the adjective "abrupt" to describe her eyes is interesting, too, as it's not normally a word one would use to describe eyes, and it's just strange enough to make the reader think about what her eyes must look like, without slowing the narrative.


Section 3 of "Signs and Symbols" relies heavily on dialogue to show the characters' relationship to one another and advance the story:

“I can’t sleep!” he cried.

“Why can’t you sleep?” she asked. “You were so tired.”

“I can’t sleep because I am dying,” he said, and lay down on the couch.

“Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Solov?”

“No doctors, no doctors,” he moaned. “To the devil with doctors! We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible…. Responsible!” He hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.

“All right,” she said quietly. “We will bring him home tomorrow morning.”

“I would like some tea,” said her husband and went out to the bathroom.

The short, clipped sentences and the husband's dramatic way of speaking tell us a lot about how this couple is together. His demands are met by her quiet acquiescence and servitude.