Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rhymes With Duck Redux

By Cornelia

Just about two years ago, here on the Naked blog, I posted a post about what I consider to be the joys of swearing. Recently, I had an essay included in a new anthology edited by the wondrous Ellen Sussman, called Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. When I was asked to be one of the DW contributors to the Powells.com weeklong blog in honor of the book's  publication, it seemed a fitting time to re-examine my lifelong love of profanity.

I also revealed a bit about my former alter ego, Bunny de Plume. To read more, go here... (Bonus! Find out what my dirty word is! And also why I gave up writing pornography!) 

So far, nobody loves me on Powell's except Sharon, and she was forced to comment because I made her read the post in her own living room. Please leave me another comment, so I don't look like a total geek in front of all those literary types. 

In the meantime, I'd like to ask all of you brilliant and talented Nakeds for your help with something. This week marks the advent of the most splendid and inimitable Book Passage Mystery Writer's Conference, of which Our Jackie is co-chair. 

On Friday morning, Tim Maleeny and I will be teaching a workshop on characterization, and I'm compiling quotations which show a particular flair with revealing the characters we've come to know and love across all genres. If you've got one on hand you find particularly snazzy, please share in the comments.

I think some of the most classic character introductions in crime fiction don't hold up all too well. They can be clunky, and all too adjective-heavy. Occasionally verging on the fussy, even in supposedly he-man lit.

Take this, the first-page description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (To me, all but the last line should have been cut--the rest of it is so confusing I end up picturing Spade as rather Cubist):

Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down, from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather like a blond satan.

(oh, and p.s.? How can he look like a blond satan if he has pale brown hair?)
And here's the self-described Philip Marlowe, from page one of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep:

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them I was neat, clean, shave and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.

Again, he's got a nice little punch at the end, but I think a contemporary editor would have slashed the hell out of that passage anyway.

I like character intros that are a little less on the nose, a little more sleight-of-hand. Revelation by misdirection, or contrast with another character in the same room, perhaps. A slight idiosyncracy that hints at the whole iceberg lurking beneath an otherwise unruffled ocean.

Here are a few of my own faves, though I'll be searching recently read books read for more:

Sir Thomas, who was ready enough to depart, saw that an immediate escape was impossible. 

"Sir Thomas," began Mr. Pabsby, in a soft, greasy voice--a voice made up of pretense, politeness, and saliva.

--Anthony Trollope, Ralph the Heir

He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife.

--Douglas Adams

He was full of gossip and you could trust him to know the details of the latest scandal before anyone but the parties immediately concerned. He would have stared at you with frank amazement had you suggested his existence was futile. He would have thought you distressingly plebeian.

--W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

"A-ah!" Karmazinov said in a delighted voice. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, jumped up, and hurried forward to exchange kisses with his guest--a gesture Russians tend to make if they are really famous.

--Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed

British Officer: I can't make out if you're bloody bad=mannered or just half-witted.

T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem.

Officer: Shut up!

Lawrence: Yes, sir.

Officer: I know you've been well-educated, Lawrence. It says so in your dossier.

--Lawrence of Arabia, screenplay.

[Jaak] explained [Julya] to Arkady, "The first time I saw her she was wearing gumboots and a mattress. She's complaining about Stockholm and she came from someplace in Siberia where they take antifreeze to shit."

"That reminds me," Julya said, unfazed, "for my exit visa I may need a statement from you saying you don't have any claims on me."

"We're divorced. We have a relationship of mutual respect. Can I borrow your car?"

--Martin Cruz Smith, Red Square

And who could forget the wandering street prophet from the leafy suburban town in Peter DeVries Consenting Adults, or The Duchess Will Be Furious, who lambastes his fellow citizens with such impromptu sermons as the following:

"For the day of vengeance is at hand. 'Ye are no longer my people, ye fancy schmancy,' saith the Lord. 'Wastrels and spoiled, ye eat the tender tips of the asparagus and throw the rest away, yea that which is still edible. Lo the lean years will come when ye shall learn your lesson. Yea the entire stalk will ye eat, and glad to get it."

What's a pithy intro of a great character that's stuck with you? Thank you in advance for sharing...


  1. Here's one of my favorites from Walter Moseley: "It's hard to get lost when you're coming home from work. When you have a job, and a paycheck, the road is set right out in front of you, every exit is yours."
    Tells the reader who Easy Rollins is in two sentences.

  2. From Wallace Stegner:

    The truth about my son is that despite his good nature, his intelligence, his extensive education, and his bulldozer energy, he is as blunt as a kick in the shins. He is peremptory even with a doorbell button. His thumb never inquires whether one is within, and then waits to see. It pushes, and ten seconds later pushes again, and one second after that goes down on the button and stays there. That's the way he summoned me this noon.

    (Angle of Repose)

  3. I love this beginning passage from one of my favorite books. It tells you that you're about to meet an unusual character, but introduces him by how he lives, not by his appearance.

    "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell,
    nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs."

    I also like the first line of "Whose Body?" Lord Peter Wimsey's first appearance: "Oh, damn!"


  4. "Her life is pleated. There is more gathered up and stored behind then one can see." Ahab's Wife

  5. You guys are amazing--thank you!

  6. I recently read a charming book called THE CASE OF THE MISSING BOOKS by Ian Sansom. Here is an amusing description of one of his characters.

    "...[he] wore the clothes of someone who looked like they'd just been practicing their chip shots, and who had enjoyed a couple of gin and tonics, and who was warming up to tell you an amusing story that wouldn't be suitable for the ladies."