Essay #2: A Memorable Person
The writing assignment:
Write a character sketch of someone you know well, focusing on one dominant character trait.
(The essay you are writing isn't research; you have most of the information in your head already. You cannot Google this one. You get to choose whether to write a warm-and-fuzzy essay or one that is a bit bitter and edgy.)
Skills to learn from this assignment:
- Selecting and focusing details—going beyond an everything-I-know-about-mom essay.
- Using examples to prove your point.
- Finding an appropriate structure. Do you really want to open with "Here are three reasons that I think my mother was a terrible parent"?
Hints for writing this paper:
Choosing your Subject
It will help if you:
- Know the person well and have had much opportunity to study his or her quirks and habits and opinions and behavior, as well as grooming rituals, penchants, hobbies, etc.
- Have been in close quarters with this person, but perhaps not by choice: a family member, a co-worker, a fellow member of a club, a classmate or a teacher, for instance.
- Stay aware of the problem of distance—you need to be close but not too close. You need to have an attitude about your subject but also you need to be able to control yourself. If you have what appears to be an unreasonable hatred or unreasonable adoration for the subject, your credibility will come into question. You don't need to be "fair," exactly, because that's not the point. But there is a need to be able to capture and convey the impression in a way that's persuasive. This essay will work best with the Middle Distance.
If you worship the ground the person walks on, you'll never get beyond gushing about how wonderful he/she is. You'll never find anything to say beyond "She's so beautiful" or "He's so strong."
- If you think your person is Satan incarnate, you'll never get beyond a catalog of the reasons you hate the person. Like the "worship the ground he/she walks on" essay, you will end up writing generalities about how you feel, and the reader will never get much of a picture of the actual person.
Avoid the most difficult subjects:
- Do not write about God, Jesus, Mohammed, a house pet, or a small child under five years old. (You'll be writing about your own emotions of love or religious devotion, not about the other person.)
- Do not write about subjects whom you know only through third-hand accounts: Barack Obama or Abraham Lincoln, for example. (This isn't a research paper.)
- This is really part of the previous point—do not write about major athletic heroes. In most cases, you can only learn about their statistics, injuries, and contract disputes. Sports writers rarely have the patience to write about someone's "dominant character trait." (How does Peyton Manning feel about growing up in New Orleans? What did he talk about the last time you had lunch with him? How does he treat his mother?) Stick to people you have actually met more than once.
Limiting your topic
The assignment says, "focusing on one dominant character trait." This should be your first hint that a general catalog of "everything you can think of" is not going to work. To tell the truth, eye color, height, weight, and clothing styles rarely reveal much about a person.
Do not just pitch in everything you can think of to make the minimum length of the paper; keep asking yourself what contributes to the overall idea you want your reader to get. Leave everything else out.
The Dominant Trait
- Can be a virtue: trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, etc.
- Or a character defect: egotism, selfishness, self-centeredness, conceit, sloppiness, laziness, or narrow-mindedness.
- More complicated motivations drive us, for example:
- need to be accepted or loved—try too hard
- need for security, stability, order
- desire for power, money, status
- desire to be superior (achievement or social standing)
- need for self-abasement, self-destruction
- need for respect of peers or superiors
- need to feel needed, to help, to nurse
- need for revenge
Getting unstuck—show, don't just tell
I get a lot of writing like this:
Elsa has this really amazing hair and great jewelry. She's so tall! You always notice her when she walks into a room.
Then the student runs out of gas—there's just nothing else to say!
The interesting thing is that nothing specific got said yet! We have all-purpose gush words ("amazing" and "great") that don't define anything. Can you tell me what color her hair is? Pink? Purple? Is it a crew cut? Is she wearing diamonds? A ring in her nose? We don't know. We have empty intensifiers ("this" and "so") but no content. How tall is "so"? Is she seven feet? Is she ten years old and five feet tall? And finally (because the writer didn't have the nerve to say anything specific) there's the appeal to the reader's emotions: "you always notice her when she walks into a room." There's no need for a comment about what she looks like, because apparently every possible reader has seen her.
That first attempt was a great example of telling without showing. If the writer wanted to show us something about Elsa, he would have written something like this:
Five-year-old Elsa has discovered her great-grandmother's old trunk in the attic. She's in love with all the old costume jewelry from the 1940s—big, showy pins and brooches and earrings. She drapes five or six strings of glass beads around her neck, dons a big floppy hat, and makes her entrance. Everyone can hear her coming because she's not too good with high heels yet, and she makes quite a racket coming down the wooden staircase. She's tall for her age, and great-grandma was quite short, so the purple silk dress almost works, and when the light from the staircase window catches her white-blonde hair from behind, she looks like some kind of goofy stylish angel, complete with a halo.
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Revised 7/12/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.