Tag: character descriptions

Flash fiction story: “This Is What I Know”

“This Is What I Know,” by Haley Biermann

Appeared in Every Day Fiction on January 14th, 2019

796 words

Great voice. I thought the various fantasy versions of “Charles” were cute.


On cartoonishness in fiction

By cartoonishness I mean a stylized playful quality and a tendency to exaggerate recognizable things (extreme personality types, the sleazier aspects of pop culture) into caricatures.

Scott McCloud theorizes that simple, cartoonish visual art mimics our mental images of ourselves, which are naturally sketchy and cartoonish. For me, though, cartoonish art more closely mimics the way I perceive people I know and care about. It exaggerates the most expressive features of the face, it amplifies body language. I think that’s also what I like about cartoonish fiction. It makes people’s speech and behavior instantly recognizable, instantly emotional, even if implausible.

By contrast, “realistic” fiction (let’s pretend we all know what that means) alienates me slightly. I approach it the way I approach a stranger. Even psychologically realistic fiction (e.g., stream of consciousness) alienates me a bit with its richness of mental detail.

“Anything for Money” is a great example of effective cartoonishness—I should read more by that author. Homestuck frequently does it well. Barthelme works. Dostoyevsky‘s characters at their most buffoonish and hysterical are cartoonish. There are probably many more.

A spoiler-free list of characters in The Adolescent/The Raw Youth, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

—well, as spoiler-free as I can manage. Based on Andrew MacAndrew’s translation. For characters with several names, the one most commonly used is bolded. The Adolescent doesn’t use as many nicknames and alternate names as certain other Dostoyevsky books, but the sheer number of important characters is exhausting to keep track of. There are also several unrelated characters who have the same names (for thematic effect, I think).

Arkady Dolgoruky (diminuitive: Arkasha), our narrator, nineteen years old at the time of most of the novel’s events

Lisaveta (Lisa), Arkady’s full sister, blond and freckled

Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, a former serf and Arkady’s legal father

Prince Dolgoruky, who is no relation

Maxim Skotoboinikov, a rich merchant who once lived in Makar’s town

Peter Stepanovich, a teacher who once lived in Makar’s town

Dr. Lichten, a doctor in Moscow who prescribed Makar an ointment

A young doctor with “an abrupt, even impolite manner”

Mr. Malgasov, Versilov’s maternal uncle, who was once Makar’s master

Savin Makarov, another of Malgasov’s serfs

Sofia, Arkady’s mother, who married Makar as an eighteen-year-old serf

Andrei Petrovich Versilov, Arkady’s biological father, who was twenty-five years old when he visited his Tula estate and met Sofia

Anna Andreyevna Versilov, Versilov’s legitimate daughter, twenty-two years old, tall and slender

Andrei Versilov, Versilov’s legitimate son

The Fanariotovs, parents of Versilov’s late wife and grandparents of Versilov’s son and daughter, who live in their home

Miss Anfisa Sapozhkov, housemaid at Versilov’s Tula estate

Mrs. Tatyana Prutkov, called Auntie though “she was neither my aunt nor anybody else’s,” a landowner who used to look after Versilov’s Tula estate

Maria, a Finnish cook/maid who has worked for Mrs. Prutkov for a long time; she has an unpleasant manner and a snub nose

Litvinov, a landlord

Lukeria, now a servant in Sofia’s home

Fekka, the maid in Sofia’s home

The late Mr. Andronikov, who had a government post and also a private law practice

Maria (no connection to the Finnish cook), Andronikov’s former ward and favorite niece; Arkady lived with her and her husband in Moscow when he was attending high school

Nikolai Semyonovich, Maria’s husband and “an intelligent man”

Barbara (sometimes Auntie Barbara), Versilov’s late aunt, at whose country estate Arkady lived before he went to stay with the Andronikovs

Monsieur Touchard, a Frenchman and the head of the school Arkady attended before high school

Madame Touchard, his wife

Agafia, who looks after Arkady at Touchard’s school

Lambert, a boy at Touchard’s school who used to beat Arkady up

Abbé Rigaud, a priest who congratulated Lambert

Efim Zverev, a high school classmate of Arkady’s, now studying at a technical college in Petersburg, about nineteen years old

Lavrovsky, another old schoolmate of Arkady’s

Prince Nikolai Sokolsky (often called “the old prince“), a former friend of Versilov who used to suffer from fits

Olympiada (sometimes called Olympe or Olympia), the stepdaughter of a cousin of the old prince’s late wife “or something like that,” and the prince’s protégée; plump, red-cheeked, no more than nineteen years old

The late General Akhmakov

Miss Lidia Akhmakov, General Akhmakov’s daughter by his first marriage, seventeen years old and consumptive

Lidia Akhmakov’s baby

Mrs. Katerina Akhmakov, the old prince’s daughter and the young widow of General Akhmakov; a beautiful woman who became greatly attached to Lidia, her stepdaughter

Baron Björing, a mid-thirties colonel and an acquaintance of the Akhmakovs

Baron R., a forty-year-old German colonel and an associate of Baron Björing

Prince V., a friend of the old prince

Mr. Pelishev, another friend of the old prince

Mrs. Alexandra Sinitsky, an acquaintance of the old prince

The Moscow Princes Sokolsky, not closely related to the old prince; they have a legal case against Versilov

Prince Sergei Sokolsky, one of the Moscow Princes Sokolsky and Lieutenant of the Guards, said to have paid an insult to Versilov

Darzan, a friend of Sergei

Stepanov, who was an ensign in Sergei’s regiment

The late Stolbeyev, whose will caused the legal conflict between the Moscow Sokolskys and Versilov

Anna Stolbeyev, a relative of Sergei

Kraft, “about twenty-six, spare, blond, above average in height, with a serious and at the same time gentle look”

Dergachev, a twenty-five-year-old engineer, dark-haired, bearded; he holds meetings at his home, which he shares with his wife, a baby, his wife’s sister, and another relative

Mrs. Dergachev, “a rather pleasant-looking, simply dressed young woman” with a baby

Tikhomirov, twenty-seven years old, with black sideburns and a voluble manner

Kudryumov, a freckled redhead with a jeering manner

Mademoiselle Alphonsine, “tall and thin as a matchstick,” a French speaker with a Parisian accent and a dramatic manner

Andreyev (Monsieur Andrieux), a long-legged man in shabby clothes who speaks bad French

Trishatov, Andreyev’s elegantly dressed friend

Semyon, a pockmarked man of about forty-five

Vasin, reputed to be intelligent, fair-haired, gray-eyed, living in Petersburg

Mr. Stebelkov, Vasin’s stepfather and guardian after his father died; an extremely well-dressed man with a “naturally aggressive” manner, black eyebrows, and a big beard, whom Arkady feels to have “an unfinished, diffuse, and undetermined quality”

Nastasia, the maid at Vasin’s lodgings

A landlord and petty government official in his forties

The landlord’s wife, a consumptive

Olga, a woman of about twenty, pretty but sickly and pale, who advertises her services as a teacher

Daria, Olga’s mother and the widow of a government employee, who came to Petersburg with her daughter; about fifty years old

Safronov, a Petersburg merchant who lost Daria’s husband’s money some years ago

Chervyakov, a lodger

Matvei, a coachman

Zershikov, a retired army captain who runs a gambling saloon

Aferdov, a gambler

Osetrov, “a long-legged, thin young man” and a former midshipman, who now makes his living by taking citizen complaints to court

Zhibelsky, a young clerk in a lawyer’s office

Peter Valerianovich, a man said to live a life of austerity in the desert

Mrs. Lebrecht, whose belongings are placed on auction

Arina, a foundling infant

Alexandra Vitovtov, owner of a private theater

Philip, a hairdresser

Succinctest character description ever

“charming, clever, pretty, unhappy”

“The Friends of the Friends,” alternately titled “The Way It Came,” by Henry James

A spoiler-free list of characters in Demons/The Devils/The Possessed, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Or, at least, as close to being free from spoilers as I can manage while still giving some description of the characters and their relationships. The names used most frequently are in bold. Quotes are taken from Constance Garnett’s translation (Project Gutenberg), as are the transliterated spellings. I created this list myself, but when in doubt I used this somewhat spoilery list for reference, so my thanks to Littera Scripta Manet. (Edit: I later found another list put together by Josh of Original Positions.)

Anton Lavrentyevitch G——v, our narrator

Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky (also called Stefan), “that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman”

Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky (sometimes called Petrusha), Stepan’s son by his late wife, raised by distant cousins

Nastasya (nicknamed Stasie), Stepan’s servant

Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, “a lady of great wealth” and Stepan’s longtime friend

Lieutenant-General Stavrogin, Varvara Petrovna’s separated husband

Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin (French: Nicolas), Varvara Petrovna’s son, whom Stepan tutored when he was a child

Alexey Yegorytch, Varvara Petrovna’s butler

Fomushka, a friend of Varvara Petrovna

Count K., with whose family Stavrogin is rumored to be acquainted

Stepanida Mikhailovna, Stavrogin’s working-class landlady

Matryosha, the twelve-year-old daughter of Stepanida Mikhailovna

Sergay Vassilyevitch Liputin (French: Lipoutine), “an elderly provincial official, and a great liberal, who was reputed in the town to be an atheist”

Madame Liputin, Liputin’s pretty young wife

Agafya, Liputin’s servant, “an easy-mannered, lively, rosy-cheeked peasant woman of thirty”

Ivan Shatov (sometimes called Shatushka), a former serf of Varvara Petrovna who was expelled from university, and the brother of Darya Pavlovna, though he rarely sees her

Darya Pavlovna Shatov (often called Dasha, sometimes Dashenka), Shatov’s sister, Varvara Petrovna’s protégée

Marya Ignatyevna Shatov (French: Marie), Shatov’s wife, with whom he very briefly lived in Geneva several years ago

Virginsky, “a pathetic and very quiet young man”

Arina Prohorovna Virginsky, Virginsky’s wife and the town’s most sought-after midwife

Virginsky’s sister, “a rosy-cheeked student and a nihilist”

Arina Prohorovna’s sister, who has no eyebrows

Captain Ignat Lebyadkin (also Ignaty), “a stranger to the town, [who] turned out afterwards to be a very dubious character,” and who happens to live in the same house as Shatov

Marya Timofyevna Lebyadkin, Lebyadkin’s sister, who lives with him

Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov (once called Pavel Pavlovitch—I think the “Pyotr” is a mistake, since it doesn’t match his son’s patronymic), an elderly club member who has a habit of saying, “No, you can’t lead me by the nose!”

Artemy Pavlovitch Gaganov, the elder Gaganov’s son, “proud, irritable, and supercilious, in spite of his good breeding”

Anisim Ivanovitch, former servant of Gaganov, who knows Stepan

Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov (formerly Tushin), a childhood friend of Varvara Petrovna, who is now elderly and has trouble with her legs

General Ivan Ivanovitch Drozdov, Praskovya Ivanovna’s late husband

Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin (often called Liza; French: Lise), Praskovya Ivanovna’s daughter, who was tutored by Stepan when she was a child

Mavriky Nikolaevitch (French: Maurice), a friend of Lizaveta and of the younger Gaganov, a thirty-three-year-old artillery captain who has “an imposing and at first sight almost stern countenance, in spite of his wonderful and delicate kindness which no one could fail to perceive almost the first moment of making his acquaintance”

Ivan Ossipovitch, “our dear mild governor”

Andrey Antonovitch von Lembke (sometimes called Lembka), the new governor who assumed office after Ivan Ossipovitch’s term

Yulia Mihailovna von Lembke (French: Julie), the governor’s ambitious and strong-willed wife, who is related to the Drozdovs

Alyosha Telyatnikov, “a clerk of refined manners, who was also a member of the governor’s household”

von Blum, a clerk in the governor’s office whom Yulia Mihailovna hates

Police-superintendent Flibusterov, “an ardent champion of authority who had only recently come to our town but had already distinguished himself”

Karmazinov, a well-known novelist and a distant relative of Yulia Mihailovna

Lyamshin, a Jewish post office clerk, who plays the piano and does amusing impressions

Alexey Nilitch Kirillov, a civil engineer who has been abroad and who takes a great interest in suicide

Shigalov, the brother of Arina Prohorovna, a gloomy man with very big ears

Nikon Semyonitch Andreev, “our respectable and respected merchant”

Fedka or Fyodor Fyodorovitch, an escaped convict

Erkel, a young ensign who rarely speaks and constantly takes notes

Tolkatchenko, “a man of forty, who was famed for his vast knowledge of the people, especially of thieves and robbers”

Sofya Matveyevna Ulitin, a widow who travels selling gospels

Father Pavel, “our chief priest”

Semyon Yakovlevitch, “our saint and prophet”

Tikhon, a retired bishop who lives in the monastery

Short story: “A Painful Case”

“A Painful Case,” by James Joyce

Original manuscript dated August 15th, 1905; collected in Dubliners in 1914 (on Gutenberg.org); also found online here; an excellent reading here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

3,641 words

This piece contains some of my favorite character descriptions:

“His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”


“He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.”

The name “Duffy” is a little too obvious for someone who’s such an emotional duffer. Though I’m afraid what really bothers me is that it reminds me of an adorable toy dog.

Why the lengthy article inserted in the middle of the story? To make us feel the pain of the case sooner and more acutely than Mr. Duffy allows himself to feel it. The article hurts because it is so clumsy and inadequate and unwittingly cruel (the line about the “failure of the heart’s action” in particular—but also, more generally, the dryness of the legal and clinical proceedings), and in that way it resembles Mr. Duffy himself. To me, though, the technique of including the entire news item seems dated. I feel sure that today, a writer of Joyce’s abilities would cut it much shorter. I’m not sure if that’s because today’s readers are more familiar with the emotional tone being struck here or because we simply have less patience.

For all Mr. Duffy’s Jamesianness, his ending reminds me more than anything of “The State of Grace.”

Short story: “The Shape of the Sword”

“The Shape of the Sword” or “The Form of the Sword” (“La forma de la espada”), by Jorge Luis Borges

Wikipedia says this first appeared in La Nación in July 1942 and was collected in Ficciones in 1944; found Donald A. Yates’ translation here

1,906 words in the translation linked above

One thing that impresses me about Borges, again and again, is the psychological astuteness that shines through his best intellectual games:

“Then I realized that his cowardice was incurable. I begged him, rather awkwardly, to take care of himself, and left. I was ashamed of this frightened man, as if I were the coward, and not Vincent Moon. One man’s deeds are like the deeds of all mankind. This is why it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden should contaminate the human race; this is why the crucifixion of a single Jew should suffice to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer is right: I am others, any man is all men. Shakespeare is, in some way, the miserable John Vincent Moon.” (From another translation; quote found online here.)

The philosophical tangent arises naturally from the character’s feelings.

When I first reached the ending, I felt for a moment that the scene quoted above had lost its charm for me. It had become too literal, Moon’s sense of the blurring of identities seemed less meaningful, and it made Moon as narrator seem more calculating. But on reflection I see that the ending merely rewrites that scene. Now the scene is no longer about Moon’s companion feeling vicarious shame. It’s about Moon sensing his companion’s awkwardness and understanding exactly what lies behind it.

Those racist Hunger Games tweets; character descriptions

When I first read this and this, I felt weirdly grateful for my upbringing. I’m white. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was raised right, but at least I don’t get outraged and whiny when a character I like turns out to be black. Now that I’ve thought about it more, I hope it’s not just that I have a better filter.

These assumptions (not explicitly nonwhite = white; good/innocent = white) get hammered into us in subtle ways. In the books I read as a kid, nonwhite characters were carefully pointed out as such; in retrospect, that was probably supposed to prevent just this kind of reaction. I also remember watching cartoon shows where one cast member could be black or Asian, but no more than one each, and if there was a central protagonist, he (or she—but only on a girls’ show) was white. Even now, the thought of violating that unwritten rule without somehow justifying it makes me vaguely uneasy, as though it were an act of exhibitionism or self-congratulation. It’s sad that some white (?) readers still need to have nonwhiteness pointed out and justified.

Related: Do people even read physical descriptions of characters in fiction? I don’t. I mean, I sort of read them, but it’s like describing the weather. If it doesn’t affect something I happen to be interested in, I instantly forget it and go on picturing the characters as not-quite-bodyless beings in a weatherless world.

At least, I instantly forget the descriptions that occur when a character is first introduced. Those descriptions tend to be static; they usually have a light, throwaway quality. When my mental image of the character matches the description, it’s usually because the description gets repeated later on, or because the character’s physical traits are revealed through action, like Psmith peering through his monocle.