Sunday

Effective and Ineffective Character Description in Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories


Annie Proulx is an acute observer of nature. Her use of the language is rhythmic, truthful, ruggedly energetic, often surprising, and nearly always right on the money.  Her fiction is permeated with a sense of place, and she often uses setting in highly inventive ways to influence the plot and characters. 

Most of the stories in her acclaimed collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories have gravitas; those that don’t are wickedly funny. The characters are original, eccentric and emphatically earthy.  She uses the spectrum of techniques to develop them, but in this post I want to focus on physical description, because it seems to me that the author’s use of it ranges from highly compelling to less than successful.  

At times Proulx seems to suffer from a kind of horror vacui, where every character, major, minor, and incidental must be described in quirky, exhaustive detail.  In a few of the stories, particularly those with multiple lead characters, the descriptions feel front-loaded, an obligatory visual inventory of the entire cast before the story is allowed to begin.  Unfortunately, some of these character descriptions are simply ineffective. This one, for example, from “Job History”:
Leeland’s face shows heavy bone from his mother’s side.  His neck is thick and his red-gold hair plastered down in bangs. 
So far, so good.  If Proulx had stopped here the reader would have had a good initial impression. But then she goes on:
Even as a child his eyes are as pouchy as those of a middle-aged alcoholic, the brows rod-straight above wandering, out-of-line eyes.  His nose lies broad and flat across his face, his mouth seems to have been cut with a single chisel blow into easy flesh.
Perhaps it’s a problem of too many impressions at once. Maybe Proulx is trying to get too specific on facial features that are too common to create a visual image. But for me, the more I read, the less I see.

Much better are descriptions that are either more economical,
Old Red, born in Lusk in 1902, grew up in an orphan home, a cross-grained boy—wrists knobby and prominent, red hair parted in the middle—and walked off when he was fourteen to work in a tie-hack camp.
Aladdin, face like a shield, curly hair springing, tipped his head toward the tablecloth . . .
less visually head on,
They could hear his rapid breathing, like that of a dog, behind them.  If it were a movie his signature music would be a puffed and spitty harmonica.
Mrs. Freeze, a crusty old whipcord who looked like a man, dressed like a man, talked like a man and swore like a man, but carried a bosom shelf, an irritation to her as it got in the way of her roping.
And at those times he stared at her with lustful, white-eyed gaze and talked filth sotto voce.
couched in vignettes, incorporating some telling action and/or possessions,
The mud-daubed son climbed out of the hole, picked up clods, pelted his father until he galloped off, pursued him to the house and continued the attack with stones and sticks of firewood snatched up from the woodpile, hurled the side-cutters he always carried in a back pocket, the pencil behind his ear, the round can filled not with tobacco but with the dark green of homegrown. 
or even “symbolic:” providing a striking image of a character while at the same time foretelling some role the character will play in the story,
…the snuff-dipping, pole-legged, stretched-out foreman, Haul Smith, face decorated with a frothy beard, ringlets the size and color of ginger-ale bubbles.
Close to, he seemed odd, legs tight as though ready to leap, his strange suit made from a coarse fabric, sewed with crooked seams.
It would be inadvisable to draw hard and fast “lessons” or “rules” from any of these subjective impressions, so let me just sum it up by noting the following.  In Proulx’s stories, the least effective descriptions are those where specific facial or bodily detail is excessively piled on, or where a large cast is sketched in a rote and dutiful manner. More effective character descriptions are economical—floating along like colorful lobster buoys in the current of the story.  Descriptions using vignettes, actions, objects, non-visual cues, or descriptions at once accurate and symbolic are also effective.  

And, of course, what characters say and do prove to be of much more consequence than what they look like.