Characterisation example

Character can be shown through the things characters do, what they say, what they look like, and what they own.

The following extracts describe two farmers from Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.

What do we learn about these characters from the writer’s choice of language?

The brothers were identical twins.

As boys, only their mother could tell them apart: now age and accidents had weathered them in different ways.

Lewis was tall and stringy, with shoulders set square and a steady long-limbed stride. Even at eighty he could walk over the hills all day, or wield an axe all day, and not get tired.

He gave off a strong smell. His eyes – grey, dreamy and astigmatic – were set well back into the skull, and capped with thick round lenses in white metal frames. He bore the scar of a cycling accident on his nose and, ever since, its tip had curved downwards and turned purple in cold weather.

His head would wobble as he spoke: unless he was fumbling with his watch-chain, he had no idea what to do with his hands. In company, he always wore a puzzled look; and if anyone made a statement of fact, he’d say, ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Very kind of you!’ Everyone agreed he had a wonderful way with sheepdogs.

Benjamin was shorter, pinker, neater and sharp-tongued. His chin fell into his neck, but he still possessed the full stretch of his nose, which he would use in conversation as a weapon. He had less hair.

He did all the cooking, the darning and the ironing; and he kept the accounts. No one could be fiercer in a haggle over stock-prices and he would go on, arguing for hours, until the dealer threw up his hands and said, ‘Come off, you old skinflint!’ and he’d smile and say, ‘What can you mean by that?’

On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin

Analysis

  • The writer uses language to contrast the two characters; although they are twins, they are very different.
  • The first twin, Lewis, is presented as physically active with "a steady long-limbed stride...” The choice of words here suggests confidence - the word "stride" has connotations of energy and vigour.
  • In contrast to this - "His head would wobble as he spoke…" - the word "wobble" suggests an uncertainty in Lewis. This is reinforced by the choice of the verb "fumbling" in the same sentence.
  • The examples of his limited dialogue "Thank you!...Very kind of you!" also reveal he is not quite comfortable with talking at social occasions, with the exclamation marks adding a comical feel to his speech.
  • In contrast Benjamin is presented as a character who "…would go on, arguing for hours…”
  • The repetition of the ‘er’ after the sharp consonants in “shorter, pinker, neater…” mirror the idea of Benjamin as more "sharp-tongued”.
  • The image of the character using his nose "…as a weapon" is also effective in establishing his sharper personality.
  • The formal, deliberate tone of his dialogue "What can you mean by that?" shows that he is more in control than his brother during social conversation.