There is a spectrum of characters in every story that range from main to minor characters. I read a prompt in “The Daily Writer” by Fred White that described characters as being either flat or round.
A flat character can be described in a single sentence, or maybe it takes a few lines, but the point is that it only takes a small space to vividly portray these characters. By contrast, a round character is more complex and it takes much more space to understand the character and their secrets, personality, motivations, etc.
Granted, main characters are often whittled down to a single line for a book blurb, but if that was all there was to them, we would have no need to pick up the book and read it. We’d have all we needed to know from that one sentence. A minor character might make a striking appearance in a single scene in a book and not play a further role in the story, or they may appear again, but the sum of the character was already revealed in the earlier scene.
Without being familiar with this idea of flat and round characters, over the years I’ve marked some of my favorite character descriptions. I’m always delighted when a complete character is brought to life before my eyes with so few words. So, I thought I’d share some with you today.
One of the first character descriptions I remember being delighted with comes from George Orwell’s novel “1984.” The main character Winston Smith has a neighbor and coworker named Tom Parsons. Mr. Parsons is described with this line “He was a fattish but active man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms–one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended.” It was really two words that painted the most vivid picture in my mind “paralyzing stupidity,” and with that I understood Tom Parsons’ character.
Another short description of a minor character comes from “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. Coincidentally, this description happens to be about a neighbor of the main character. “The Blond Weed, Ove calls her. Tottering around the streets like an inebriated panda on heels as long as box wrenches, with clown paint all over her face and sunglasses so big that one can’t tell whether they’re a pair of glasses or some kind of helmet.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget the description “inebriated panda on heels.”
The last examples I’ll share, all come from “I am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak who writes wonderful short descriptions of characters. In this book the main character describes each of his parents. The first is about his mother. “In terms of family, my ma’s one of those tough women you couldn’t kill with an ax. She’s also developed a bit of a swearing habit, which I’ll tell you more about later.” The second is about his father. “Like I said, my father died about six months ago. He was a lonely, kind, quiet, hard-drinking deadbeat.”
The last example from Markus Zusak’s book that I’ll share is intriguing to me because in a short space, I can picture this woman, and Zusak makes me feel for her, even though he’s barely introduced her. Let me give you a little bit of context for this scene. The main character has been given addresses. He goes and watches the addresses without knowing who will be there or what he is supposed to do. It is only through observation that what he’s meant to do is revealed. So in this scene he is outside one of these houses.
“The only person there was an old woman who has no curtains on her windows. She was in there on her own, making her dinner and sitting there eating, and drinking tea. I think she ate a salad and some soup.
She ate that, too.”
Now that I’ve shared some of my favorite short descriptions of minor characters, what are some of your favorite one-line character descriptions? What do you think about this idea of flat vs. round characters? Do you think you can easily condense your minor characters into one line?