I wrote this article yesterday in honor of my dad, Clifton J. Charpentier, and fathers everywhere on the day reserved just for them. Our fathers come in all shapes and sizes, colors and temperaments. Some people have dads who don’t share the same DNA but are their fathers in the truest sense of the word. Others are especially fortunate to have mentors who have fathered and taught them much about life, loving, business, sports, and a multitude of other things.
Here’s an opportunity to honor whomever you call father and learn a bit about writing at the same time. In order to bring people to life on the page, you have to them real. The reader needs to see them, know them and experience the unique qualities that make them who they are. I emphasize the word unique because you can choose to describe someone in a way that could fit thousands of other people or pick out unusual characteristics, which make them unforgettable.
Since we’re celebrating Father’s Day in this article, let’s describe the man we call dad.
Appearance is usually the easiest way to portray someone, so I tell writers to start there. His physical description includes not only features and stature but dress, habits, scents, gestures, and so forth. Get a picture of the man you call father clearly fixed in your mind and make a list of attributes that describe him. Here’s my dad:
- Wears one-piece coveralls, some for every day, some for dress up
- Sports a brightly colored welder’s cap with the bill turned up
- Piercing blue eyes
- Says he now pays the barber a finder’s fee when he goes in for a trim
- Small, thick hands, calloused and worn from a lifetime of working with wood
- Always called him Tuttie—never Daddy or Dad—because that’s what my mother called him
- Smelled like a mixture of sawdust and sweat at the end of the day
Then focus on his profession, hobbies, and interests. The list for my dad includes:
- Fine cabinet-furniture maker, home builder
- First paid for carpentry work at seven years old
- Commercial fisherman
- Raised birds, quail, pheasants, fish, orchids, rabbits, dogs, cats
Characterize the person by his disposition, the way in which he interacts with the world. Instead of simply stating he is this or that way, pick out examples of those traits or qualities in action. I describe my dad as:
- Brought six to eight thirteen-year-old girls to and from a dance every Saturday night, some twenty miles away
- Gave CPR and mouth-to-beak resuscitation to an unconscious bird—it lived
- Meets a group of buddies at McDonald’s every morning and at a friend’s house every afternoon for coffee
- Eyes turn to slits and tears form at the corners when he laughs
Allowing someone to speak on the page—dialogue—is a great way to characterize the person. Show what is unique about his speech patterns and highlight dialect, repeated phrases, speed in which he talks, length of sentences and so forth. My dad…
- Has a Cajun accent
- Did not speak English until first grade
- Loves to talk and tell stories
You can also provide background information which sheds light on the person. Be deliberate in picking out important, telling details that reveal character. My dad’s background includes these facts:
- Veteran of World War II and the Korean War who rarely spoke of his experiences as a sailor for ten years
- Lied about his age to get into the service
- Raised by various aunts and uncles
- Lived his entire life within ten miles of the small South Louisiana town where he was born, except for his time in the Navy
When you want to write about someone, it’s good to begin by making a list of everything you know about that person. You won’t necessarily use all the information, but you’ll have it right there in front of you, and you can pick and choose what you need. A telling detail about a character, dropped in here and there in a story, is a great way to bring the person to life.
Tuttie, you are all these things and so much more. Your life’s goal has been to provide a secure and stable home for Mom and me, to present me with every possible opportunity to learn and grow, to give me everything you did not have. You succeeded. I’m fortunate that you’re my dad, and I love you very much. Happy Father’s Day!
Now, tell me about your dad.
Fathers Day Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net