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.
At first, you think it’s more polite to look at her hands. That way you don’t have her yellow-skin, sunken-eye sickness staring you in the face. But her hands write out every detail of her illness, if you watch them enough.
Her hands shake the moment she tries to move them, or even lift them off the starched bed-sheet. They tremble in two different ways. The first way her hands tremble is obvious—they rotate slowly on her wrist as she reaching for something. It’s like watching someone try to drive a car with a steering wheel that sometimes doesn’t work and other times overcompensates, when you watch her try to use her hands. You see her aiming, you know what she wants, but there’s this disconnect between her and her hands—so she can’t control or steer them very well.
The second trembling is a slight tremor, which extends all the way up to her shoulder any time her hands are not at rest. The tremor appears like the aftershock of an earthquake from deep inside her body; something destructive ripping up all that surrounds it.
The yellow tone of her skin gives her veins a sickly puce color, as though they were moving poison instead of blood. The veins run over the thin frames of her hand, and down around the wrist. They bulge so much that—at first glance—her veins seem to run over the top of her skin, rather than under it.
The nails are black and a yellow-algae color. They harbor fungus beneath them, which push the nails up and out so—like the veins—they seem to be resting on the tops of her fingers instead of being a part of them.
The bones of her hands are easy to see, they’re so exposed despite the thin sheet of skin which drapes over them. They are thin, like the bones of a bird—one that may fly away at any instant.