Here is yet another exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich, for character description. Too often writers simply tell who their characters are, rather than showing them through description or actions. This exercise calls for the focus to be on the hands of a character, and to show who that character is based on their hands.
The first thing you notice about her is her fingers; they’re always moving. It wouldn’t be so noticeable if the rest of her weren’t so shock still, as though she were perpetually caught in fight or flight syndrome. She won’t look down or away but stares straight ahead, far off, and doesn’t really see you; her voice is so soft it’s like a distant echo. The only part of her that seems present is those constantly fidgeting fingers.
They start off at her sides; her elbows slightly bent, her hands hanging limp from her arms, and those fingers twitch like a small whimper. It’s just her thumbs, at first. Her thumbs start by lightly brushing the tips of their respective fingers. The thumbs go back and forth across the fingertips a few times—warming things up—before she lets her fingers bend and flex just slightly, so she can fun her thumbprints across her nails before sprinting across her fingertips. Her thumbs circle around for quite a while like this, and refuse to settle in one particular place—they can’t seem to get comfortable.
If you drag the conversation out with her, then her thumbs will also start to drag. Instead of running her thumbprints across her exposed fingertips, she’ll drag the corner of her thumbnails through them. The fingers even out this abuse by flexing just a bit less, so that when the thumbs round to the side of the nails they end up pressing themselves into the jagged bits of chewed cuticle instead of the smooth side. She does this with such rapidity and such frequency that—were you to take her fingerprints—a nervous line would cut across the natural groves in her skin.
Eventually, her fingertips sting enough that her frantic thumbs come to halt. She then brings her hands up to the small of her throat, the way a person would in some weak defense against a physical attack. Her thumbs, however, stay at work though they no longer run. They work on each other. They dig past the other’s nails, hook onto a piece of skin, and drag it out into the light. She starts at one corner of the nail, and works her way over to the other corner. By the time she’s done, she’s stripped away the top layer of her thumbs; she leaves red, naked, and exposed skin to the scrutinizing eyes of the world.