Grace Notes – the Word Portrait

Grace Notes – the Word Portrait

Last time we examined one of the techniques Susan Fletcher uses in Shadow Spinner to aid readers in recognizing secondary characters: the Layered Character Tag. Now let’s look at how Fletcher helps her readers “see” important secondary characters in detail. She uses a lengthier description technique I call the Word Portrait.  

Fletcher focuses primarily on what these characters look like and how they move, but she occasionally draws attention to other senses, such as sound and smell.

Here are some examples of the Word Portrait:

1.       Soraya, the copper-haired girl, is described as having a “showy walk, with a lot of hip in it.  Her ankle bracelets jingled, and her long, unbound hair swished from side to side.” 

2.      Another character, Zaynab is painted as a “crinkle-faced woman” with a “high, rich, warbling voice,” who moves like “a plump, round cat – gliding along the flat parts [of the roof], leaping across gaps, scaling rickety ladders…mincing along ledges.” 

3.      However, the most colorfully drawn secondary character is the Khatun.  Here, Fletcher paints a picture that warrants fear and revulsion.  Marjan describes the Khatun as “hugely fat:”

“She seemed to spill over the edges of the massive cushion she was sitting on. Her neck fell in folds over her pearls and I could see the shapes of billowing mounds of flesh beneath her robes. Though her face was bloated, misshapen, it held traces of lost beauty…Between pouches of soft, fleshy skin, her dark eyes gleamed.”

– Shadow Spinner

The Khatun also exudes a “rotten, sickly sweet” smell that horrifies Marjan and accompanies the woman wherever she goes.  Marjan likens the Khatun to a spider in the middle of a “vast web that spanned the whole harem. Any disturbance – anything unusual that happened – would jerk the web…And she would know it.”

Now, if you can see each of these characters out of context, just imagine how effective these portraits are within the scope of the narrative! By combining sight + sound or sight + smell, Fletcher gives her readers an unforgettable experience of the characters her protagonist encounters. This Word Portrait, then, contributes to the overall immersive quality of the narrative.

Take a moment to brainstorm several Word Portraits for the supporting cast of your current writing project. Try to use at least two of the five senses. You might be surprised at the new insights you will glean.  

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