One-sentence portraits

I am practising a new exercise: to sum up a character in a few, grammatically connected, words. Preferably with one single sentence. This may be their personality or appearance, or both, but in terms of the rules, directly applied adjectives will be avoided (large, friendly, pretty, intimidating, gloomy, etc.)

Below are a few great examples from literature. Admittedly, these are sometimes extracted from longer descriptions (Dickens, for example, was liberal – though not inefficient – with descriptive text); however, they nail a character or a key characteristic in a few words. The descriptions give a strong mental image and hook the reader, whether using imagery, the character’s actions, habits, impact, or even reputation, whether with promise, irony, or portent.  

The smiler with the knife beneath his cloak – Geoffrey Chaucer in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ Pilgrims Progress (there are many marvellous examples in this collection).

A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… Charles Dickens on Mr. Bounderby in Hard Times

He had an air which said: I am distinguished. Muriel Spark on Sir Quentin Oliver in Loitering with Intent.  Notably, Spark described herself as an avid listener and “person-watcher” from the time of being a child.

She was one of those people you cannot think of except in regard to their looks, which in her case were unvarying, independent of clothes, of age, of circumstances, even of health. Nancy Mitford on Polly Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate

He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. Virginia Woolf of Charles Tansley in To the Lighthouse.

All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it. Philip Pullman on Lord Asriel in The Golden Compass

Zenia stands out; her face and hands and torso swim against the darkness, among the white chrysanthemums, as if disembodied and legless. Margaret Atwood on Zenia in The Robber Bride.

Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let along snag her skin. Maya Angelou on Bertha Flowers in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

It was only the new game-keeper, but he had frightened Connie, he seemed to emerge with such a swift menace. DH Laurence on Oliver Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.


Do these work for you?


Main image by Peter Olexa from Pixabay 

20 thoughts on “One-sentence portraits

  1. In re your theme: I’m reading a mystery by Rex Stout. The Mother Hunt. I’d never read anything by him before. Punchy language. Quick, insightful descriptions of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the tip, that’s a new writer to me. I think genres that are plot driven can provide good examples of vigorous, concise writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent collection. Right from the beginning you had me thinking of Chaucer – even before I knew you were going to give examples

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    1. Yes, Chaucer does a lot of physical description, but in terms of nailing a character’s personality, there are some great, pithy examples, relating to their actions, such as the Reve:
      ‘He well knew how to keep a granary and a storage bin /
      There was no auditor who could earn anything by catching him.’

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  3. They work for me. I also try to describe people and things without putting too many adjectives in my writing. It makes the story stand out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a good discipline, especially when focusing on plot. I get in two minds about physical descriptions, though. I do like a bit of information, to help me picture the characters, or because I get curious about them.

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      1. …………..yeh especially in bedroom sex scenes ( 😀 just sayin!)

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        1. Discipline in the bedroom or being economical on description in “bedroom” scenes?

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          1. 😀 Nooo to either! Authors of erotic fiction should describe ‘bedroom scenes’ with as much lurid sexy description AS possible……….. surely that’s why read naughty stories is to get turned on and then lol ‘get off’ so to speak 😉 .

            (As we’ve discussed before, explicit erotica and romantic fiction are very different genre.)

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            1. I agree – let’s be honest, we’re not there to have the door closed on us. Yes imagination is powerful, erotic needn’t be graphic, necessarily. But personally, I think it does need to be sensual and unafraid.

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              1. Sensual, imaginative with characters I care about. I enjoy your writing have you ever penned a truly explicit tale? I’m genuinely curious 🙂 .

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  4. Roald Dahl was VERY (an understatement) dismissive of writers who relied on/overused descriptive adjectives……….. hmm are writers who do either lazy or

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    1. (I hit enter prematurely!)…………or excessively overedited a piece of writing?

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      1. I don’t think the way we’re taught at school helps – my kids have been taught to increase their ‘word power’ and vocabularies with adjectives and adverbs, but they’re also encouraged (and marks are at stake!) to use them in creative writing. That’s quite a habit to unpick. Roald Dahl was probably write about using them sparingly – but he does sound to have been a bit of a curmudgeon!

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  5. great descriptions, as I see most of them from ol’good classics or modern classics. I think its always depends on the goal of the author – the descriptions – even excessive /wordly descriptions can work sometimes in the text, but I love those short – to the point :))

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    1. I agree, I think it depends on the genre and if plot or character-driven, plus the prominence of the character, whether a main (or false) protagonist, etc.

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  6. They do–not all but most. I love this idea, Pam. It reminds me why I read, less for the plot and more for the beauty of the words.

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  7. I think that’s a great exercise. Definitely something I could improve upon.

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