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.
It’s hard to look past the rest of her appearance at first. She has a sort of ethereal presence about her that occupies the senses. Any movement she makes is accompanied by the jangling and tingling of jewelry, which was made by either her or her friends. Her face is made-up to be beautiful, but not in the conventional way—it’s pretty like a painting, her face serving as a canvas. She wears so much perfume that it not only distracts the nose, but travels down the back of the throat and into the mouth so one can actually taste what she’s wearing.
But get past the jangling, the glittering, the make-up and the perfume and it’s her hands that get noticed. Possibly because they contrast with the rest of her, in that they are grounded in the world of toil and not of glamour—but also because they’re worth noticing.
The tips of her right index and middle fingers, and the inside of her thumb, are constantly black. They’ve been stained too much with color. She holds the paint-brush too close to the bristles to escape with clean hands, but she doesn’t care. Holding the bristles close lets her feel like she’s a part of her work, and she likes her painting to leave a sort of birthmark on her. This stain on her skin is also reinforced every time she uses charcoal to etch out another design, another idea, to color with paint and bring to life.
Along the crevices of her nails run different colors that change on a day to day basis. Sometimes the inset of her nails are rife with turquoise, other times stained with lavender, occasionally they’re coal black with traces of silvers. Her wrists always house some misplaced brushstroke—hiding behind some bangles—that she didn’t catch when she washed off.
She paints when she talks, as well. Whether or not her story is worth it, she tells it with poetic description. She draws with her hands as well as with her words. Her palms mark the space in front of her with broad, defining strokes. Her fingers trace the delicacies of the picture, the details and the nuances a viewer might miss if he doesn’t pay attention. The whole picture emerges like the center of a blooming flower when she finishes; her hands having danced like leaves to trace out the wind of her words, on which they rode.