English 100 Tipsheet #2

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:

Hints for writing this paper:

Choosing your Subject

It will help if you:

Avoid the most difficult subjects:

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

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: callen@ashland.edu.