Writing to the Extremes

It is not necessarily true that a picture is worth a thousand words. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia. By writing to the extremes (the extremities, I mean) we can bring our characters to life in a new way.

In The Blue Nowhere, Jeffery Deaver tells us about Wyatt Gillette, a computer wizard, by focusing our attention on Gillette’s hands. Gillette has thick yellow calluses on the tips of his muscular fingers, and even when Gillette is not at a computer, his fingers move constantly as if typing on an invisible keyboard. I know somewhere in the novel Deaver described Gillette, but did he really need to? Don’t we get a feeling for the character from those two significant details?

By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character.

And don’t forget fingers and toes. What is there to say about toes? Think about a woman who wears severe suits and a severe hairstyle but paints her toenails crimson. That contradiction makes us want to know more about her. Or think about a man with a mincing walk stemming from shoes so small they pinch his toes.

Do you remember to use the extremities in your novels? How do you use them? What ways can you use them, but don’t? Can you think of ways to describe characters by their extremities alone? What gestures or mannerisms can define characters? What gestures or mannerisms can characters use that may be fresh and not trite? (For example, restless feet can denote lying, or a desire to be somewhere else, or boredom.) What other example can you think of (or have already written) where a character’s extremities play a significant role? Is it better for the extremities to match the character or contradict it? Shoes are a significant fact of life; how do shoes figure into your novel?