- Characters must be introduced with very few details.
- In Of Mice and Men, of George and Lennie’s introduction tells us what is important without a word of description.
- Putting contrasting characters together brings out the salient points of their personalities.
- Steinbeck gives us the elements that drive the story as first impressions.
And there’s your problem.
The Steinbeck approach
You can’t inject all that information into your reader’s head. You will need to use up precious paragraphs of your story to describe your characters. In fact, you could probably write a description as long as the story you have in mind. But if you do that, your reader will give up before they get to the third paragraph. You’re writing a story, not a description, so things need to happen in those paragraphs. There’s no space for kinked toes and volumes of milk in coffee.
So how do you make the most of all the thought and caffeine it took to build those characters? It’s worth a look at how two of the most memorable characters in English literature strolled on to the page:
The first man stopped short in the clearing, and the follower nearly ran over him. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat-band with his forefinger and snapped the moisture off. His huge companion dropped his blankets and flung himself down and drank from the surface of the green pool; drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse. The small man stepped nervously beside him.“Lennie!” he said sharply. “Lennie, for God’ sakes don’t drink so much.” Lennie continued to snort into the pool. The small man leaned over and shook him by the shoulder. “Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was last night.”
Lennie dipped his whole head under, hat and all, and then he sat up on the bank and his hat dripped down on his blue coat and ran down his back. “Tha’s good,” he said. “You drink some, George. You take a good long drink.” He smiled happily.
George unsling his bindle and dropped it gently on the bank. “I ain’t sure it’s good water,” he said. “Looks kinda scummy.”
Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water and wiggled his fingers so the water arose in splashes; rings widened across the pool to the other side and came back again. Lennie watched them go. “Look George. Look what I done.”
George and Lennie are the protagonists Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The first couple of hundred words introduce them perfectly without a single word of overt description. It’s worth looking at how Steinbeck achieved that, albeit with a spoiler alert. If you haven’t already read Of Mice and Men, I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t think it was time well spent.
Description by implicationThe descriptions of the characters is not overt, but the whole passage is loaded with description by implication. It starts at the first sentence: ‘the first man stopped short in the clearing, and the follower nearly ran over him’. The description of the action is so straightforward that the amount of information contained in it is concealed.
The two characters are described as ‘the first man’ and ‘the follower’, which tells us this is a story about two men, one of whom habitually follows the other. By the fact that the follower ‘nearly ran over the first man’, we learn that the follower is both substantially larger than the first man and is clumsy.
Hang on, you might say, can we really condemn the follower as clumsy based on that? The description of the clearing that preceded their appearance made it clear that it was a hot day and a long way from anywhere. Anyone can lose concentration on a long walk on a hot day, and the best co-ordinated among us bump into people from time to time.All of which is true, the follower’s clumsiness is that it’s the first thing Steinbeck tells us about him. The first impression stays with us. From that sentence to the last page, the follower’s clumsiness is fixed as a defining characteristic in the mind of the reader.
In this case, Steinbeck used the power of first impressions in a straightforward way. Lennie’s clumsiness is the first thing we learn about him and it drives the story to its resolution. Other authors might play with that power, introducing characters with misleading first impressions. In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, Jack Aubrey gets carried away at a concert and is elbowed in the ribs by his neighbour. As it’s written from Jack’s viewpoint, we share Jack’s first impression of a rude little man. It’s only when they get talking that we realise there’s far more to Stephen Maturin than the first impression. So much, in fact, that the friendship between Stephen and Jack carried twenty novels through thirty years. Though Stephen is always likely to elbow someone in the ribs for interfering with his enjoyment of music.
Contrasting characters reveal one anotherThe action that follows George and Lennie’s appearance in the clearing further establishes their characters and how they interact. Lennie is hot and thirsty so when he sees water, he drinks it. It’s left to George to think about whether the water is clean enough or not. When George tells Lennie he’s ‘”gonna be sick like you was last night”‘, we see that Lennie’s impulsiveness is normal and that he does not learn from unfortunate consequences.
We learn more from Lennie’s lack of response in George shaking his shoulder and, ‘”for God’ sakes don’t drink so much”‘. George might be the leader, but Lennie does not give him unquestioning obedience, especially when something else has his attention.
Once his bodily needs are satisfied, ‘Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water’ to make ripples. Why a paw? Bears have paws. Lions have paws. Lennie is a human being, so he has hands.
I didn’t notice the imagery in that description when I first read it, but I’m sure it lodged in my subconscious. It conveys something dangerous about Lennie, and we soon learn that Lennie’s paw can be as lethal as the paw of a bear. That danger contrasts with his chlidlike joy in making ripples, hinting that a child’s mind in the body of a strong man can be a dangerous thing.
Technique by a master
The genius of Steinbeck’s description is that it looks effortless. I first read it as a description of a couple of guys by a pond on a hot day. I didn’t realise how much Steinbeck had told me about them. Studying his technique, two things leap out more than any other.
The first is that by putting two characters with contrasting characteristics together, the characteristics emerge through their interaction. The dialogue reveals the personalities while their movements reveal Lennie’s physical size.The second is that the situation is one in which the dynamic that defines the story is evident. George spends the whole book trying to contain Lennie’s tendency to grab first and think later. In the opening paragraph, he can’t keep Lennie from drinking possibly toxic water. By the end of the novel, Lennie’s impulsiveness will have got him into trouble that George can’t get him out of.
Neither character is described in detail. We don’t know what colour their eyes are or where they spent their childhoods. Those are details that will be dropped in through the course of the story as they become relevant. The introduction doesn’t tell us everything about the characters but it makes us care enough to want to know more.
I’ve learned a lot from Steinbeck’s approach. If you have too, do I get to tend the rabbits?
Or perhaps a more pertinent question would be what’s the best character introduction you’ve ever read? Did it use Steinbeck’s technique? Did it build on it? Did it do something altogether different? Please share your thoughts in the comments.