Monday Craft Tips: Using details to bring characters alive

Although Possession is justly considered to be a literary masterpiece, A. S. Byatt still knows how to tell a good yarn. Who can resist two attempts at a letter from a gentleman to an unknown lady professing undying admiration? lettersEspecially when the young man reading it proceeds to commit professional misconduct by purloining those two sheets of paper:

Dear Madam,

Since our extraordinary conversation I have thought of nothing else. It has not often been given to me as a poet, it is perhaps not often given to human beings to find such ready sympathy, such wit and judgement together. I write with a strong sense of the necessity of continuing our talk, and without premeditation, under the impression that you were indeed as much struck as I was by our quite extraordinary to ask if it would be possible for me to call on  you, perhaps one day next week. I feel, I know with a certainty that cannot be the result of folly or misapprehension, that you and I must speak again. I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table… (7)

This is the first time the reader is introduced to Randoph Ash, a Victorian poet, and the woman he admires, Christabel LaMotte, who also writes poetry. In this medium, a letter, we have to infer what these characters are like by examining the text. We are told that Ash is a poet, and indeed we can see this by his large vocabulary (premeditation, misapprehension, entice). His writing is powerful and direct. These two characters met and fell into conversation easily. They had empathy for one another. They were well matched in intelligence. They had a great deal to say to each other, and what they said was significant. The strikethrough is a brilliant touch, showing how anxious Ash is to make a good impression on Miss LaMotte, how he restrains himself from assuming that she sees the conversation in the exact same way, even though he believes she does.

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