Saturday, May 26, 2007

One Line Characterizations

(Note: After several years of successfully dodging colds, I finally got caught by one. I'll live, but the accompnaying sore throat is making it tough to use the VRS for any length of time. Posting will likely be delayed or late until I get my voice back.)

One-liners as characterizations is a traditional form of verbal short-hand in the southern U.S. We considered it witty to offer a short anecdote or observation on a person in such a way that can be later expanded into a proper yarn, if need be. Most folks dismiss them as sayings or colloquialisms, but while they're usually joke-funny, they're also often painfully accurate:

She fell outta the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

He's busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.

I don't know what sent her over the edge, but in that family, it doesn't take a real hard push.

He's got two ways of fixing things: do-nothin' or duct tape.

That girl would screw a snake if you held the head.

Most often the one-liner characterization is best delivered in dialogue, as it is an observation or gossip, but it works in the narrative, too. It takes a little investment of trust in the reader to "get" a description that isn't a typical recital of physical attributes, but with the right words you can prompt the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks.

With this sort of characterization, there is the temptation to use an easy, cliche analogy: as fast as greased lightning, dumber than a post, crazy as a fox. You can use cliches as practice by taking them, shaking them, and turning them into something new, like as fast as TV preachers go to Hell, dumber than invading Antarctica, and crazy as a dog after a treed squirrel.

You don't need to resort to the classic analogy form for a one-line characterization, either. Claes, a character who could rightly be described as a tall, sturdy, muscular, brown-haired youth who seemed immovable and unbending, yet who still possessed adorable, boyish indentations in his cheeks becomes in Dorothy Dunnet's hands an oak tree with dimples (Niccolo Rising.)

Your assignment today: in comments, give us a one-line characterization describing one of your characters, or a character from your favorite book.


  1. Ugly it.

    Hmm. The only thing I can think of for one of my own characters is Talks straight as a maze for Ev Carey.

    As for one of my favorite characters, I'm gonna have to go with Nathaniel from The Amulet of Samarkand et al, by the amazing Jonathan Stroud. That boy's plans run as smooth as a pineapple.

    Thanks for the laughs and advice.

  2. One of my characters - damn hard to condense to 1 line, but what a great exercise :)

    Turian was like the little housecat; kicked and despised by the men, but always coming home for her milk, because she had nowhere else to go...

  3. She lay on the bed like a strip of faded, yellow wallpaper.

  4. Anonymous12:04 AM

    So crooked he'd cheat his own grandmother, and so slick he'd get away with it, too.

  5. Anonymous12:27 AM

    I don't have a character in mind but what fun!

    So forgetful she can't remember meeting someone from one blink of her eyes to another.

  6. He smelled like a porta-potty that had been rolled in cow manure.

    Oh, wait--this was supposed to be a character, NOT a real person . . .

    *sigh* I'm so not good at this stuff.

    Often said about dating at my college: If Concordia were a meat market, you'd have to throw most of it away.

  7. This isn't from a novel, or from my own writing, but from a buddy from University.

    As crazy as a bag of hammers.

  8. From an old 'gumshoe' short of mine...

    "She was cordon-bleu cotton candy, left out to dry on a dick."

  9. Jeez, I've just finished writing a story for the story-a-day marathon over at Forward Motion that is completely written in cliches and not one character description suitable for this.

    Sigh. I always liked the road mapped face with the thousand yard stare.

  10. A popular country expression where I was growing up " A face like a windrow of arseholes."

  11. Anonymous9:30 AM

    Oh, man, now you're hanging out under my shade tree. I love 'southernisms'. In fact, I'm one all by myself. "That girl is so southern, you think you're at Miss Pitty Pat's before you get outta her portico." Bless my heart.

    My favorite characterization isn't mine, but it has remained at the top of my list for years. "That boy was so smart you could put his brain on the head of a pin and it'd roll around like a BB on a six-lane highway." I don't know why that one cracks me up so, but it does.

    The Southern dialect is as colorful as the people who have inspired all the stereotypes...and I know at least one person who inspired the stereotype or are so close they're first cousins once removed on their mama's side. I reckon there's a reason for pot-bellied sheriffs and Daisy Dukes, but everybody knows Andy wasn't dumb and Daisy, bless her heart, was really from Hollywood.

    However, your point--I know you had one and like a true Southerner, I took a backroad and missed the turnoff--is well taken. Characterizations are often simple observations; the little notes we make about people somewhere in the back our minds. Take those, twist them around enough to draw a picture instead of listing physical attributes, and any dull run of description can sparkle like early-morning dew on a spider web.

    So now, to do the exercise properly.... My character is a paranormal psychologist: When her colleagues found out she hunted ghosts, they thought she was so far left of the center line, she was skirting the ditch. However, most of the male faculty stepped over to academia's shoulder since they preferred the company of a woman who looked like she had just accepted roses at the Darlington 500 to colleagues who cracked smiles as unused as grass-encroached asphalt. To them, she smelled like the air they remembered before industry's exhaust laid a cloud of pollution over their roads.

    I got a little carried away. Sorry. But I had fun. Thanks.

    Karen, the lurker

  12. A good description of one of the characters in my WIP: "She has about as much artistic talent as a drunk orangutan with no thumbs."


  13. Anonymous11:59 AM

    Here's a character from my first WiP...

    "He looked like he was born in a three-piece suit."

  14. She's on a mission from the underworld, armed with underwire.

  15. Anonymous2:48 PM

    She's on a mission from the underworld, armed with underwire.

    LOL! I love that!

  16. Anonymous3:39 PM

    Taryn had all the patience of a cat trapped in a sack, and claws just as sharp.

  17. Anonymous4:56 PM

    Hope you get feelin' better soon, sugar!

    I've got one I bet you've never heard.

    He smelled worse than sand dollars drying out in a bucket.

    And let me tell you, if you've ever smelled sand dollars in the raw (so to speak) then you know exactly what I mean. :)

    Whew! LOL

  18. Snort! The sand dollar thing...Oh my God. SO true!

    Ahem. Now, how about "Dumb as a box of rocks"? My mama always says that.

  19. Anonymous10:32 PM

    A few fries short of a Happy Meal.

    Or " He was the power forward for Team Moron."

    (You can substitute "Quarterbacking for Team Stupid".. you get the idea)

  20. Anonymous11:37 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. Above SPAM comment deleted. Mercenary hit man hired. Owner of ISP better have the wife start the car.

    Sorry, folks. I've deleted the same crap five times now. I'm getting punchy.

  22. She loved Moby Dick, only without the Moby.

    1. Anonymous3:54 PM

      You have no idea how much that made me laugh omg

  23. He was a mountain of a man, with a face that looked like it was backhoed directly onto his neck.

  24. He was as welcomed as a cool drink of water on a blistering summer's day.

  25. I love these sorts of things but I'm not very good at them and I have a head cold besides. Oh well, here goes:

    Julia's feelings for Patrick were as confused as trying to read a foreign road map in a mirror and yet she couldn't resist the lure of the open road...

    (Characters from my book)

  26. Recent comment about the dentist...

    He charges like a wounded bull.

  27. Anonymous9:37 PM

    The Christmas lights around here: about as tasteful as stale white bread.

    The only kinda good one I can think of for my characters is for Seth: that boy schemes like a lawyer on a reality show.


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