Oblique specificity of description

That phrase probably makes no sense, but it’s the best I can do.

There’s a thing certain writers are capable of: Dorothy Dunnett and Dorothy Sayers are the ones who come immediately to mind, and Sonya Taaffe (she has a Patreon for her movie reviews — I’m just sayin’), but I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of at the moment. These people are brilliant at describing characters. And what makes them brilliant is what, for lack of a better term, I keep thinking of as “oblique specificity.”

By this I mean something like the “telling detail” writing-advice books are always going on about, but leveled up. It’s the ability to find that one thing about a character, be it physical or psychological, that isn’t in the list of the top ten features that would probably come to mind if somebody said “describe a character,” but winds up encapsulating them in just a few words. And it’s the ability to make those words not the ones you expected: the line that sparked this post is from the Peter Wimsey novel Murder Must Advertise, where Lord Peter is playing a cricket match and accidentally goes to town when up ’til then he’s pretended to be just an ordinary guy. There are lots of phrases I would think of to describe how he starts showing a higher degree of power than he’s exhibited before, but “opening up wrathful shoulders” is not one of them — and yet, it works.

I want to read more authors like this. (Because I want to dissect what they’re doing until I’ve figured out how it ticks.) So: recommend authors to me?

I’d especially love to see this done in different contexts, because one thing Dunnett, Sayers, and Taaffe share is that they’re all writing from a more omniscient perspective than you’d ordinarily see in a modern novel. I think the added distance helps, because description doesn’t have to be delivered through the perspective of a character; not all characters are really suited to that kind of descriptive artistry. Though no examples are leaping to mind at the moment, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a variant of this done with first-person narrators, using the narrative voice to give descriptions more punch than they would otherwise have, but I’m not sure that’s always quite the same thing that I’m thinking of. (Since I’m kind of vague on what exactly I’m thinking of, this distinction is subject to debate.) I think I’ve seen it much less, though, with third-person limited narration, which lacks both the unfiltered individuality of good first-person narration and the analytical distance of omniscient. Then again, maybe that’s just a function of who I’ve been reading. I welcome any and all recommendations, especially if you can quote lines to show me how that author approaches it.

But do keep it limited to description of characters, rather than other things. Scene-setting and action and so forth are worthy topics in their own right, but right now it’s the evocation of character that I’m particularly interested in dissecting.

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