This post is the second in a series on writing effective character descriptions. In the first post, I studied a passage from Jim Butcher’s novel Storm Front. Today, I’ll be doing a careful reading of a character description from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. This excerpt is from near the beginning, and describes the main character, Kvothe, for the first time.
Graham noted the difference. The innkeeper’s gestures weren’t as extravagant. His voice wasn’t as deep. Even his eyes weren’t as bright as they had been a month ago. Their color seemed duller. They were less sea-foam, less green-grass than they had been. Now they were like riverweed, like the bottom of a green glass bottle. And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed–red. Just red-hair color, really.
This passage is not only beautifully written, it serves the story in more ways than one. Here are a few of the phrases I found to be significant.
The innkeeper’s gestures weren’t as extravagant.
We later learn Kvothe is an actor, not just onstage but in the larger than life presence he used to have. Through a simple mention of his gestures, this character who knows little of his past has nevertheless revealed something fundamental Kvothe has lost. It gives us a sense of Kvothe as he is now, and a guess at who he used to be.
His voice wasn’t as deep.
A deep voice is often associated with a commanding, assertive presence. Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, once was a man who commanded attention and respect. As a trained actor, we have to assume some of this presence was a deliberate effect. But little by little that part of him has been fading away, and it shows in something as fundamental as the tone of his voice.
They were less sea-foam….Now they were like riverweed
The color of Kvothe’s eyes has been known to change when he’s angry, and here, we see them fading as he fades into obscurity. Once they evoked the sea, something powerful and natural, that implies adventure and a broad horizon. Now, they are like riverweed, which we can picture existing at the bottom of a river, tangled in the mud.
This description implies something drowning, something trapped, something caught in the mire. Not only does it give us a visual detail about Kvothe, it reminds us of the difference between his past and present.
less green-grass .. green glass bottle
The color of his eyes is referenced further here. The echo of “green-grass” and “green glass” tie the past and present together, calling attention to their differences, as well as reminding us they are tied together. “Green-grass” evokes a feeling of freshness, wildness, and freedom, while “green glass” reminds us of something artificial, something trapped within a bottle. Just as Kvothe is trapped in this simple life.
And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed–red. Just red-hair color, really.
“Flame” reminds us of the power of Kvothe’s legend, of the young man who burned bright as fire. Now, his hair seems just, red. “Just red-hair color, really.” As though the flame inside him has died, and only embers remain.
These visual details are significant not only because we can now picture Kvothe, but because they’re set up in such a way that we learn a lot about who he was and who he is now. One of the mysteries that drive the books is simply: “What happened to Kvothe?” With something as simple as a character’s eye and hair color, Rothfuss has started to build that mystery, as well as paint a compelling image of a man fading away.
What can be learned from this?
My first thought is that a good character description should do more than one thing. Here, it does three. It tells us what Kvothe looks like, it gives us a sense of how he’s changed, and it builds a compelling mystery.
Rothfuss is one of those authors who chooses words carefully and deliberately. You can see, in descriptors like “sea-foam” and “riverweed,” that not only do the words evoke a color, they have further symbolic meaning. And in the wordplay of “green-grass” and “green glass,” he ties together present and past, one a faded echo of the other.
When it comes to creating my characters, my goal is to craft descriptions that serve more than one purpose, and carefully choose my words to have the greatest effect.
If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on Rothfuss’s work, I’ve written a blog post about the prologue to The Name of the Wind. Next in the series on character descriptions, we meet Quoyle, a character in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.
Photo of Patrick Rothfuss by Alvintrusty (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
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