How to Write


Felix threw his fag-end into the water, it made a tiny hiss. In the harsh sea-light the whites of his eyes were soiled, and the skin around his eyes was taut, as if from a scorching, and scored with tiny wrinkles like cracks in a china glaze. The breeze brought me a waft of his breath, laden with the smell of smoke and the metallic tang of his bad teeth. I could smell his clothes too, with the sun on them, the shiny, pinstriped jacket with its prolapsed pockets and wilting lapels, the concertina trousers, the shoes like boats.

- from John Banville's novel Mefisto.

Describing characters is hard; this short sketch is brilliant. The details are precise and unusual - the whites of Felix's eyes are soiled, the skin around them taut - and a springboard for a leap into a doubling, somersaulting figurative comparison. When Banville moves from sight into another sense, smell, he does so in an active manner ("the breeze brought me a waft of his breath"), where saying it passively might be duller (*"I could smell his breath," say). Another reason this is so rich is that every line in the description takes on more than one job (it's Felix's breath that smells, but presenting it via the breeze reminds us that we're outside, on this walk by the sea). The word choices for Felix's clothes towards the end are vivid, odd, dreamlike and nightmarish too -- Felix's pockets are "prolapsed"? He's wearing "concertina" trousers? Figurative language takes us into other worlds. The whole thing, without saying a word about Felix's character, tells us everything about his personality.