I’m not sure it’s true any more that a picture is worth a thousand words considering that a thousand words takes up only a few kilobytes of computer memory while a good high resolution picture takes up three to four megabytes. And anyway, it doesn’t take a thousand words to describe something so that it becomes real. 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.
Take hands for example. 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. Hands can slap another character or caress a cheek, and such actions tell us about the relationship between the characters.
Here are a few examples of hands and what they do, taken from Light Bringer,.
The kid smoothed his neatly combed hair, swung his callused hands front to back as if he didn’t know what to do with them, then stuck them in his pockets.
Arthur Shillitani took his thin, long-fingered hands off the controls and slicked back his dark hair.
Rena studied her hands. . . . They were paler than usual, making the blue veins seem more prominent, and the nails were in need of a clipping, but otherwise they looked like the hands she’d lived with for the past thirty-seven years. What made them different from anyone else’s? What made her different?
Some examples from More Deaths Than One:
The staff sergeant was only 5’9” or 5’10”, but he had a powerful build with thick wrists, a massive chest, and hands that looked able to crush a larynx without any effort at all.
No one who crossed the threshold had the pampered arrogance of Evans’s men or the soft hands of a corporate drone.
The backs of his hands were crepey and mottled with age spots, but he seemed only about ten years older than Bob.
Kerry folded her hands primly in her lap, but her body seemed to vibrate with suppressed excitement.
And a couple of examples from Daughter Am I:
Mr. Browning shuffled through the papers on his massive black walnut desk. His age-mottled hands moved slowly, as if weighted by the six turquoise rings he wore.
Not hearing Happy, she looked back — he was heading her way, fumbling with his gun. He seemed to be trying to point it at the woods, but his hands shook so badly, the weapon wobbled all over the place.
So, when describing your character, don’t forget their hands. Hands make the character.
Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+