I've officially developed a writer crush on Neil Gaiman. There's just so much good stuff in The Graveyard Book.
Last time, we talked about subtlety in narration. In this post, I'd like to focus on characterization. While Gaiman doesn't do anything incredibly new or unheard of in The Graveyard Book, I found his character descriptions to be effective for three reasons.
1. The descriptions are strong, either in emotion or word choice.
2. The descriptions are specific. This works two ways. First, he uses words with focused definitions. Also, the descriptions are specific in the sense that that they apply only to that character -- you can't easily transplant them to describe a similar character in a different book.
3. The descriptions are memorable and quotable.
Lets jump into examples. I'll focus on Silas, one of the main characters. We first encounter him shortly before the excerpt discussed in the post on narration. This is our first impression of him.
The man Jack was tall. This man [Silas] was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man's clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business -- and he did not like to be noticed -- were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.
Great use of comparison here to give us a strong impression of Silas's unsettling presence. Those who read the last post will remember that the man Jack just murdered a family in cold blood. If we now read that Silas is even darker and more disturbing than Jack, we pay attention.
Silas eventually becomes caretaker to Bod, the toddler whose family Jack killed. In this next example, Bod reflects on what Silas means to him.
Silas had brought Bod food, true, and left it in the crypt each night for him to eat, but this was, as far as Bod was concerned, the least of the things that Silas did for him. He gave advice, cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct; he knew more than the graveyard folk did, for his nightly excursions into the world outside meant that he was able to describe a world that was current, not hundreds of years out of date; he was unflappable and dependable, had been there every night of Bod's life . . . .. most of all, he made Bod feel safe.
This passage has more telling than showing, but again, look at the strength and specificity of the words. He doesn't just give good advice, he's "cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct." How dependable is he? He's been there "every night of Bod's life."
I especially like the last sentence of this next excerpt.
Bod shivered. He wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.
You could almost get the same meaning by saying that Silas is aloof and not physically affectionate, but it wouldn't quite have the same flavor and certainly would not be as memorable. It also wouldn't be as specific to Silas as a character. There are many people in the world who are unhuggable for various reasons. However, it is much harder to find people who you don't hug because it "would be wrong."
And finally, this is my favorite passage. In this scene, the living and the dead gather for a lively dance to celebrate a snowfall. Bod is caught up in the celebration and excitement.
Everyone, thought Bod, everyone is dancing! He thought it, and as soon as he thought it he realized that he was mistaken. In the shadows by the Old Town Hall, a man was standing, dressed all in black. He was not dancing. He was watching them. Bod wondered if it was longing that he saw on Silas's face, or sorrow, or something else, but his guardian's face was unreadable. He called out, "Silas!" hoping to make his guardian come to them, to join the dance, to have the fun they were having, but when he heard his name, Silas stepped back into the shadows and was lost to sight.
The emotion here is really powerful. For me, this was the moment that really connected me to Silas and made me respect and care about him.
Here's a writing exercise inspired by all this talk about characterization. Pick one of the characters in a work in progress, and write some sentences describing the characters, trying to strive for strong, specific, and memorable language. Feel free to share them in the comments. Or, if you can think of any memorable character descriptions from books you've read, please share them too!