Readers do not often pay close attention to characterization because effective writers make their characters come across without the reader noticing those techniques employed to make it happen. Bruce Chatwin, Sara Suleri and Tom Wolfe are all authors who successfully create narratives in which characters evolve and develop. Readers engaged in this world created by the author often become oblivious to the technical subtleties used. If it were obvious how and when characterization occurs the author's ethos (or credibility) would be broken because the reader would be drawn out of the world of the narrative in noticing such things. One of the most important aspects of characterization involves defining a character by means of their actions and reactions; not simply telling about characters by means of supplying facts. Descriptive detail is another important facet of successful characterization because readers learn about characters by putting the evocative details supplied by the author together. This method of writing results in readers remembering more about the characters than if they were simply told about them. Effective writers often make their readers curious by leaving information in short supply at first; this technique draws readers into the narrative by requiring them to read actively to gain a complete sense of characters.

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia is a series of short and seemingly unrelated narratives tied together by the common theme of Chatwin's experiences traveling in Patagonia and his quest to understand the true native life. Chatwin creates his ethos with his rich descriptions. The reader's picture of life in Patagonia is formed by the moments, people, and places Chatwin chooses to pick out of his experiences and describe for us. Chatwin's many descriptions of people he interacts with during his journey leave the reader feeling as if each one is a snap shot that will eventually fill in a larger picture when the narrative is completed. Even though Chatwin does not develop characters over the span of a whole book, his descriptions of people are poignant and revealing, as brief anecdotes help the reader to know Chatwin's characters. In "The Last Place on Earth" Chatwin characterizes his grandmother:

My grandmother lived in a red-brick house set behind a screen of yellow-spattered laurels. It had tall chimneys, pointed gables and a garden of blood-coloured roses. Inside it smelled of church.

I do not remember much about my grandmother except her size. I would clamber over her wide bosom or watch, slyly, to see if she'd be able to rise from her chair. Above her hung paintings of Dutch burghers, their fat buttery faces nesting in white ruffs. On the mantelpiece were two Japanese homunculi with red and white ivory eyes that popped out on stalks. I would play with these, or with a German articulated monkey, but always I pestered her: "Please can I have the piece of brontosaurus." [2]

Here Chatwin makes his grandmother come alive in rich and fascinating ways in just a few short lines. His writing follows the idea that in order to understand the people you must understand the place, and to understand the place you must understand the people. He first gives his readers a sense of his grandmother's house to facilitate their understanding of his grandmother. By describing his grandmother's house in colors, shapes, and smells, Chatwin brings the place to life. The detail that stands out the most in the first paragraph is that her house smelled like church. The sense of smell is not frequently engaged by writing and therefore catches the reader slightly off guard. This description is effective because when Chatwin mentions the smell of church, many readers know exactly what smell the author is talking about.

Chatwin's ability to show his readers rather than tell them about his observations is critical to the success of his travel writing. Next, Chatwin helps his readers gain a sense of his grandmother as a person by describing her physically. He does not just say she was a large woman; instead he shows how big she was by saying that he remembers almost nothing about her except her size. Chatwin continues the description of his grandmother by saying he would watch to see if she was able to get out of her chair. Again, showing us proves much more effective than simply stating that she struggled to get out of her chair. The paintings of Dutch burghers and their "fat buttery faces" suggest a physical correlation to Chatwin's grandmother in physical appearance, and the Japanese homunculi almost suggest a resemblance to Chatwin as a child because of the similarities in short stature. Such details not only give the reader a sense of his grandmother's house but also of the characters. Rather then saying the Brontosaurus skin fascinated him and made him want to visit Patagonia to find the creature from which it came, Chatwin provides the reader with words from his childhood when he incessantly bothered his grandmother for the piece of skin. Extremely specific details allow the readers to build a picture in their mind of Chatwin's grandmother and thus are central to the success of his description and characterization of his grandmother.

Chatwin uses slightly different techniques of characterization in "Province of Buenos Aires" when he seeks out Bill Philips, who is the grandson of a pioneer in Patagonia and has established a more or less local life there. Throughout his book, Chatwin seeks to understand and convey the nature of the local life in Patagonia, and thus Bill is an important resources for him. Chatwin characterizes Anne-Marie, who is never mentioned specifically as Bill's wife, but runs their household while living with him and a child:

She had a bright open smile when she smiled. She was thin and healthy and had black hair cropped short and a clear tanned skin. I liked her tremendously, but she kept talking about ‘us provincials'. She had worked in London and New York. She knew the way things ought to be and apologized for the way they were. [10]

The physical description Chatwin gives of Anne-Marie, while concise, is somewhat generic, and she comes across as a typical woman conscious of maintaining order in her household and conscious of her appearance. When Chatwin cuts right to the point and says "she knew the way things ought to be and apologized for the way they were", Anne-Marie's characterization is immediately enriched. The reader instantly gets the sense she is overly anxious about societal expectations and embarrassed about not meeting them. However, Chatwin never states this, instead he allows the reader to feel the awkwardness present at the meeting between Anne-Marie and himself by means of showing the reader that he noticed her anxious behavior. By brining Anne-Marie's behavior it to our attention, Chatwin implies to his reader that he is not bothered by the way things are in Patagonia, rather he revels in it, and does not quite know what to do with someone who is so worried about it. This description, unlike that of his grandmother is not based on sensory details, but is successful because of what Chatwin implies about what he leaves unsaid.

When characterizing Paco Ruiz in chapter 39, Chatwin uses the strategy of leaving seemingly important information out of the text at first.

An old Mercedes truck drove into the camp at eight and the driver stopped for coffee. He was heading for Lago Posadas with a load of bricks and took me on. Paco Ruiz was eighteen. He was a pretty boy with strong white teeth and candid brown eyes. His beard and beret helped him cultivate the Ché Guevara look. He had the beginning of a beer stomach and did not like walking. [79]

In this excerpt Chatwin begins his characterization of Paco by introducing the boy's beloved truck, inherently delaying information such as the character's name and physical description. All the reader knows at first is that "an old Mercedes truck drove into the camp at eight and the driver stopped for coffee." Chatwin most likely leaves his readers hanging in such a manner because he views the vehicle as an extremely important aspect of Paco. Thus Chatwin feels the reader should meet Paco by understanding his truck first. It is not until the following paragraph that Chatwin tells his reader; "Paco loved his truck and called her Rosaura" (79). During the preceding paragraph the reader is not sure that the truck and Paco are necessarily connected, and this statement is the first time the connection is made explicit. It is effective for Chatwin to wait in providing this information because the reader must fully absorb the preceding details of Paco's "strong white teeth", "candid brown eyes" and early formation of a beer stomach due to the fact Chatwin provides nothing else. Paco's physical description holds consistent with the responsible actions he takes with Rosaura at the end of the chapter. He is described as pretty, strong and candid, all adjectives that help to create an image of responsibility and dedication, emotions Paco also feels towards his truck. When he and Chatwin are stuck in the bottom of a canyon due to mechanical problems, Paco tries relentlessly to jack up Rosaura and repair her. Eventually the truck slips and his leg is bruised and cut up. "I found him sitting away from the road, white, frightened and whimpering" (80). The reader learns of Paco and many of Chatwin's other characters by putting together their histories as they read and by experiencing the sensory details the author provides. With these details in mind the reader has a unique way to remember characters as they continue to piece together their stories. Sara Suleri utilizes similar strategies.

Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

In her autobiography, Meatless Days, Sara Suleri brings the reader right into her family's life in Pakistan from two intertwined perspectives. At times she has the eye of a child growing up in Pakistan; at other times she speaks from the more distanced eye of an adult living in the United States. She begins with her adult view, which helps to ease the reader into her story because it is a perspective closer to our own. Later, she moves into descriptions of life in Pakistan with her siblings and grandmother told from her childhood point of view. Suleri's characterization of her grandmother, Dadi, draws upon both her adult perspective and her childhood memories.

Suleri uses short sentences when first introducing Dadi to get across information about her grandmother's history; where she was born, when she married, and why she moved to Pakistan (2). Like Chatwin, Suleri leaves much to the reader's imagination early on, and details are filled in as the story progresses. The first physical description the reader gets of Dadi is predominantly lyrical in style.

By the time I knew her, Dadi with her flair for drama had allowed life to sit so heavily upon her back that her spine wilted and froze into a perfect curve, and so it was in the posture of a shrimp that she went scuttling through the day. [2]

The image of her grandmother scuttling like a shrimp conveys the way a child would look at the world and choose to remember it. Suleri incorporates this childhood image into her adult reflections on how her grandmother had let life sit heavily upon her back. The two points of view, which play nicely off of each other, give the reader a more complete sense of Dadi's appearance than the reader would have if Suleri just conveyed one outlook. By using detailed examples and words, such as "scuttling," rather than simply telling her readers that her grandmother walked hunched over, Suleri evokes Dadi's image and eccentric nature. The reader gleans a sense of Dadi's personality and physical appearance from this succinct description but is left wanting to know more about what exactly "her flair for drama" entailed and just why she "had allowed life to sit so heavily upon her back".

More of Dadi's character is revealed as the reader becomes familiar with Dadi's traditional values through Suleri's description of her grandmother sitting in the courtyard in the late afternoon winter sun.

With her would go her Quran, a metal basin in which she could wash her hands, and her ridiculously heavy spouted waterpot, that was made of brass. None of us, according to Dadi, were quite pure enough to transport these particular items, but the rest of her paraphernalia we were allowed to carry out. These were baskets of her writing and sewing materials and her bottle of pungent and Dadi-like bitter oils, with which she'd coat the papery skin that held her brittle bones. [6]

Suleri shows Dadi's values and personal character in this passage by telling the reader what her inner thoughts as a child were about her grandmother's rituals. For instance, she shares that she thought the waterpot was ridiculously heavy, and that there were many items none of the grandchildren were pure enough to carry. Suleri never says that Dadi explicitly told her grandchildren they were not pure enough to move her belongings, but instead the author conveys this information by telling her reader how she felt about the situation at the time. By describing the oils as "Dadi-like" and describing Dadi's skin as papery and holding her brittle bones, Suleri is able to portray the event through the somewhat distanced eye of a child who thinks it is all a little bit strange and unusual without explicitly saying she thought it was odd.

Suleri, like Chatwin, has the ability to characterize people in her narrative in just a few vivid lines: "But Dadi had different plans. She lived through her sojourn at the hospital; she weathered her return. Then after six weeks at home, she angrily refused to be lugged like a chunk of meat to the doctor's for her daily change of dressings" (14). In this quotation Suleri utilizes language that is not flowing but rather delivers a large amount of information with quick punches. Suleri's choice of language mimics Dadi's stubborn, determined and strong approach to life. Along with numerous other small bits of information she scatters throughout her text, this supplies the reader with an understanding of a piece of Dadi's character. By dropping these tiny pieces, Suleri makes her characters come alive as the reader works to piece them together.

Suleri often drops one intense sentence about a central component of Dadi's character and then moves on with her narrative, for example, "since something of Dadi always remained intact, however much we sought to open her" (6). Such sentences keep readers on their toes, wanting to know more about what Suleri leaves unsaid. These omitted details are as important as what she does choose to include because the intriguing gaps force the readers to use their own imagination. "At about this time Dadi stopped smelling old and smelled instead of something equivalent to death" (8). In this sentence Suleri does not say how Dadi smelled old or what the equivalent to death smells like, but instead she leaves exactly what those smells are to her reader's interpretation. Still, she provides sufficient details for readers to use their imagination.

Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff

Since both Chatwin and Suleri use relatively short chapters, they wolfe do not have a lot of space for character development. We encounter a few characters more than once, but neither author utilizes a whole book for the advancement of their characters. Tom Wolfe, on the other hand, uses chapters that are much more linked and his characters progress throughout the whole narrative. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe writes about the worlds of fighter pilots during World War II and astronauts in the late 1960s. In essence, Wolfe has done his homework. Thus he can provide readers an inside perspective on these men's existence. Wolfe's major subject is the fraternity-like atmosphere created by the pilots and astronauts yet at the same time the intense competition between every one of them. This competition is unspoken, but they could not be more acutely aware of its existence because it is what drives their daily lives. Early on Wolfe defines just what it means to have the right stuff.

Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot has this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even -- ultimately, God willing, one day -- that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself. [24]

This definition of the right stuff is so effective because Wolfe does not say the men were competitive and their careers centered around being the best. Such a description would make the reader feel as if they knew everything they needed to about the right stuff. Instead, Wolfe shows his reader a glimpse of the right stuff with his example of the ziggurat pyramid. The reader gains a sense of what the right stuff is and becomes intrigued by this unusual example, as well as what kinds of people would live such a life, always struggling and being tested in such a blatant manner every step of the way. Wolfe leaves his reader wondering what, exactly, the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff is and why it deserves capitalization.

It is particularly interesting to look at how Wolfe characterizes Chuck Yeager. He begins by introducing Yeager as "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff" and then goes right into a physical description which conveys Wolfe's admiration for Yeager and his acknowledgement that Yeager does, in fact, possess the right stuff.

Which is to say, he was the boondocker, the boy from the back country, with only a high school education, no credentials, no cachet or polish of any sort, who took off the feed-store overalls and put on a uniform and climbed into an airplane and lit up skies over Europe. [46]

Here, Wolfe presents Yeager as the quintessential American dreamer who starts from nothing and pulls himself up by his own merits and sheer talent. Wolfe shows his readers that it does not take unusual talent or special genetic predisposition to accomplish what Yeager accomplishes. Wolfe says Yeager was the boy "who took off the feed-store overalls and put on a uniform and climbed into an airplane and lit up skies over Europe." The everyday detail of the "feed-store overalls" is one many people could probably relate to at the time. By means of this well understood reference and Wolfe's technique of generalizing Yeager as "the boondocker, the boy from the backcountry," Wolfe conveys the illusion that anyone can achieve what Yeager has because he puts Yeager on the same level as the reader in this description. Obviously, not everyone can have the right stuff, a fact which makes the reader curious to know more about Yeager's superiority.

Wolfe gives his reader a first glimpse that Yeager has the right stuff when tells us that he is chosen become part of the mission at Muroc Field to break the sound barrier. "Nevertheless, there is something extraordinary about it when a man so young, with so little experience in flight test, was selected to go to Muroc Field in California for the X-1 project" (48). Wolfe continues to portray Yeager as the everyday hero, and from the way Yeager conducts himself, his approach seems to be nothing short of carefree towards the whole operation. In the following passage his cowboyish nature is revealed.

The only trouble they had with Yeager was in holding him back. On his first powered flight in the X-1 he immediately executed an unauthorized zero-g roll with a full load of rocket fuel, then stood the ship on its tail and went up to .85 Mach in a vertical climb, also unauthorized. . . . Not being an engineer, Yeager didn't believe the "barrier" existed. [53]

Here Yeager is characterized as an idealistic young person who believes there is nothing to stop him from his dreams. This characterization appears when Wolfe states that Yeager could not be held back and then gives a specific example of just how much Yeager ignored protocol during his first X-1 flight. When Wolfe says "Yeager didn't believe the 'barrier' existed," Yeager's idealism shines through and makes us laugh. It is also effective that Wolfe puts the word barrier in quotation marks because this implies that Yeager believed the whole idea of a barrier was stupid without Wolfe having to say it. This characterization speaks to the readers' idealistic side because they are invited to suspend disbelief and entertain the possibility of breaking our own barriers, something Yeager does frequently.

Later, Yeager falls off a horse riding into gate after a night of drinking. His ribs are in pain but he brushes it off. When they still hurt the next morning and he is scheduled to break the sound barrier in the X-1, he cannot tell anyone at Muroc because he would not be allowed to fly if they knew about his injuries. Yeager's right stuff would be put on the line if he backed out due to an injury, especially one from something seemingly as avoidable as falling off a horse riding into a gate. Yeager shows up the next day for his flight in the X-1 because this is his opportunity of a lifetime, and there is no way he can hand it over to someone else. He quickly realized that he will not be able to push a critical handle to make the door airtight due to his rib injury. Yeager's unrelenting drive and his skepticism about the barriers presented by an injury are shown throughout this scene, especially when he confides in the project's engineer, Jack Ridley.

So Yeager takes Ridley off to the side in the tin hanger and says: Jack, I got me a little 'ol problem here. Over at Poncho's the other night I sorta . . . dinged my goddamed ribs. Ridley says, Whattya mean . . . dinged? Yeager says, Well, I guess you might say I damn near like to . . . broke a coupla the sonsabitches. [56-57]

Ridley then suggests that Yeager use a piece of a broom handle in order to gain the required leverage to lock the door with his other hand. This passage shows the lengths Yeager, and most likely many of his contemporaries, are willing to go to in order to uphold their personal possession the right stuff. Wolfe characterizes Yeager as tough and stubborn with dialogue that shows how Yeager reacts to the situation. By showing his reader dialogue filled with details Wolfe makes Yeager's personality comes alive much more than if he were to say that Yeager was obstinate and ignored his injury for the sake of his right stuff. Yeager is lucky enough to be rewarded for his toughness.

The X-1 had gone through "the sonic wall" without so much as a bump. As the speed topped out at Mach 1.05, Yeager had the sensation of shooting straight through the top of the sky. The sky turned a deep purple and all at once the stars and moon came out -- and the sun shone at the same time. . . . He was the master of the sky. . . . He spent the time doing victory rolls and wing-over-wing aerobatics while Rogers Lake and the High Sierras spun around below. [58-58]

In this passage, which characterizes Yeager as a hero, Wolfe shows that he is proud of his accomplishments -- something conveyed in the careful language Wolfe employs. By saying Yeager shot through the top of the sky and by describing the cosmic nature of his surroundings such as the purple sky, the sun and the stars all at once, Wolfe builds Yeager's pedestal as he puts him on the same level as elements much bigger than any human being. When Wolfe calls Yeager "The master of the sky," his God-like image is reiterated. The reader feels just how happy Yeager is when Wolfe describes him as doing victory rolls with lakes and mountains spinning around him. This last image gives readers the idea that Yeager is in control of the world, both natural and mechanical, around him.

As the chapter continues Wolfe makes it clear that there is to be no celebrating because that would be a violation of the right stuff. However, Wolfe does show his reader that Yeager is not all that happy about being restrained in sharing his success, for "by and by they all left and stumbled and staggered and yelped and bayed for glory before the arthritic silhouettes of the Joshua trees. Shit! -- there was no one to tell except for Pancho and the goddamned Joshua tress" (60)! Again, using dialogue, Wolfe shows that Yeager is not exempt from human desires and still wants recognition even though he may have the right stuff. Next Wolfe makes the point that it is highly important that recognition come only from inside the fraternity. Wolfe shows the dissatisfaction with outside recognition in the following passage.

The real problem was that reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about . . . all the unspoken things! -- about feat and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene! They presumed a knowledge and an intimacy they did not have and had no right to. [62]

This passage makes clear that Yeager and his brothers fly mostly for themselves and their country, and not to gain recognition in the mass media; this characteristic in turn makes them more even more rightful possessors of the right stuff. The key is that Wolfe never says any of this: he shows it through Yeager and other characters.

Bibliography

Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Toronto, Ontario: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1979.


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Last modified 16 December 2003