Saturday, May 1, 2010


I Never Knew Rosella Ruth. Vintage Photo-Montage, by Ruth Zachary.


Even if you are not a writer of fiction, you can benefit by finding new approaches to depict a person, or a character. In poetry or in biographical sketches, and even in news reporting, incorporating details, which authentically reveal character, can enrich your writing.



Character traits fall into different categories:

General Traits formed by heredity and environment;

Universal, important when a character departs from the norm.

Nationalistic; traits resulting from culture, language, history, etc.

Regional; traits peculiar to a certain region or location.

Group; traits derived from occupation, social status, sex, etc.

Period, Century or Decade or Era. Traits specific to time periods.

Physical Traits found in the physical makeup of the person, but which often are symbolic of other sorts of traits deriving from the background.

Personal Traits found in the social or ethical aspect of the individual.

Emotional Traits found in the mental or psychological cast of the personality.


The following list includes characteristics a person may reveal. Pick one or more to use in your depiction of him or her to convey an idea of personality. Show how the person discloses these traits, rather than by description, or “telling” the reader or interpreting the character. Conversation with you or with another may reveal the character’s motivation, peculiarities, attitudes, etc. Observation of actions may suffice. Descriptions of physical appearance, or clothing are best intermixed with conversation or observation to be more interesting. Descriptions which are symbolic, as with a physical setting can convey a great deal about a character.


Her style, her dress.

His values, ethics, integrity, character and beliefs

His actions or behavior as related to the above

Her way of thinking, her thoughts

His manner of speech, gestures, or language

Her intelligence

His wisdom

Her personality or affect

His peculiarities, differences, aberrations and contradictory traits

How she solves problems

His life routine or way of being

Her physical landscape, geography, climate

His habits

Her pleasures and leisure activities

His possessions

Her limitations and barriers

His home surroundings; did he create them?

Her occupation, work, specialized experience or vocabulary

His goals and achievements or lack of them

Her social milieu, its commonalities

His unrealized dreams

Her talents, capabilities, strengths and skills

His relationships and the way he views them

Her Ethnicity

His Era of life; the decade he grew up in and how it is revealed in him.

Her Country, and political or economic climate

His childhood experience

Her genetic material; physical attributes

His appearance, gender, sexual preferences and age

Her prejudices and fears, secret shame, or back story, hinted at - not told

His spirituality, religion

The way she experiences the world; which senses are dominant.

How others see him... what they say about him

What she says or thinks about other people


In the following poem, I characterize a grandmother I never met using two photos and a few scraps of information from a letter and from other’s accounts.


I Never Knew Rosella Ruth


I have two likenesses of her, and a letter

written to her parents, just after she

was married in 1902. Nearly every

other paragraph mentioned “Charlie.”


In the first photograph, her hair was pulled

severely back from her symmetrical face,

her round heavy-lidded blue–gray eyes

stared out under carefully shaped brows,

and a strong chin held her blended

cheeks in place. Her plainly pinked lips

seemed motionless over a black stiff

bodice lined with a white parson’s collar.

She had retouched the photo herself.

Was it the retouched woman who

willingly surrendered to death, and left

an infant and a devastated Charles behind?


Aunt Lillian’s photo of her was less formal,

less perfect than other family recollections.

A vital, direct, and hopeful gaze looked

at me openly as if curious about what kind of

granddaughter I had become. I noticed

her face was not symmetrical at all,

left ear and eye slightly lower than the right,

with a hint of blood, dark in sensuous lips.

Her mouth and chin were still determined,

but did I imagine a hint of mischief?

And wisps of hair, escaped in wayward

streaks from that disciplined cap of hair.


She looked so familiar. That face could

have been mine, once, was the face

I saw in the mirror when I was young;

The face in the photograph shared

my features; the same round heavy eyes,

except brown, like Charlie’s, a drooping

left eye and ear like hers, nose straight

but tilting up. In the mirror

I saw that at my age now, I was like her

grandmother, instead of she being mine.


I was often told I was her namesake and

had inherited her “gift,” a rare artistic talent.

In this influence, I have lived my life

with determination to redeem the gift

we each were given at birth. I view her now,

as a mere girl of only twenty- three, scry

her face for inner strengths, and wonder at

her weaknesses, by which to measure

the lessons I have learned, that might

have fulfilled the life she didn’t get to live.


Images and Writing are the Copyright © of Ruth Zachary.

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