If you’ve ever taken one of my classes, or worked with me as an editor, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Coco Chanel: “quality is in the details.”
Often, the details I’m focussed on are word choices. Is this the most evocative verb? Is that the most specific noun? As Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But when it comes to portraying character, those aren’t the details I worry about most.
Don’t get me wrong. You still need the right words and not the almost-right words in any description or dialog. But what portrays character most powerfully, in literature as in life, is what a person does. So I spend a lot of time worrying about what my characters do, and what that says about them. Which gestures, decisions, and actions should I choose to show you, the reader? Which are the gems that will best evoke my characters?
I recently had a brainwave about one of my characters — the one loosely based on my great-great-great grandfather. Let me first explain what “loosely based” means. It means that the character in my novel walks around in my head. I have a feeling for him. I know him on an intimate and nuanced level, although like any human, he may surprise me. I might even be a little in love with him.
I don’t know what kind of man my greatx3 grandfather was. Like any reader, I have to deduce this from his actions. But the man that I’m “reading”from the paper trail I’ve researched is not very much like the corresponding character in my head. No matter. Greatx3 grandpa is only there for inspiration. After all, my novel is fiction.
The other day, I was looking at a photo of Greatx3 Grandpa taken in 1905. Here it is…
Doesn’t he look like a Mafia don, with his thick, short, centrally parted hair and self-satisfied smirk?
That hair fascinated me. I kept coming back to it like a tongue to a missing tooth. Where was his queue—the long Celestial braid that should have been hanging down his back?
The queue was not a fashion statement. The queue was an imperial edict enforced by law, punishable by death. All Chinese (Han) men had to wear a queue as a sign of their subservience to the Qing, their Manchu overlords. Lose your queue; lose your head.
And yet, here was Greatx3 Grandpa giving his finger to the Emperor. He was involved in a lot of China trade at that time. One year, he shipped east four thousand 100-lb sacks of American flour. Yet, queue-less, he must have stopped outside the Manchu’s gates—at Macau or Hong Kong, foreign colonies where head-chopping for missing queues was not enforced.
This gesture, this one little hair cut, tells you so much about his character. It tells you that he was nationalistic. It tells you that there was a broad streak of defiance in him. It tells you that he was confident — that he didn’t have to kowtow; he had other options, in America. It tells you that he had his eyes on the future.
Six years after this photo was taken, the Qing Dynasty fell.
My great-great-great grandfather’s early cutting of his queue is what I’d consider a telling action. Although, with all the “show don’t tells” I chirrup, maybe I should call it a showing action. So I’m stealing it for my novel.
My character is softer than I suspect my greatx3 grandfather was. He’s less businessman, more romantic. But they share a boundless optimism, an ability to see the glass half full and on the verge of getting fuller. Both had eyes on far horizons.
In my novel, cutting that braid will cut ties to the past. It will be the declaration of a new man. It will be the exultant embrace of a new world.
So, sometimes you can tell a lot about a man from his haircut.