Giving psychological descriptions of a character is fun but it can also get dangerously sensitive and intricate. It is fun because you feel delighted to explore your character deeper and deeper. Sensitive and intricate because you might bore the reader while entertaining yourself; and at worst, you might leave the reader far away while enjoying your lonely walk. I will try to present the two ways in which, I think, psychological descriptions of a character can be given.

The descriptions given about the character’s feelings by referring to the state of mind and body, I call them, Pulse Descriptions. These feelings are wrapped up in the descriptions that do not include the phrases like “John felt…” or “John was feeling like…” etc. These descriptions just tell the feeling, without explicitly declaring that it was “felt”. Consider the below given example:

The lion crouched to pounce on him – Allen’s heart popped out.

Notice that the clause “Allen’s heart popped out” is a description that is based on the feeling Allen had when confronting the lion. In reality, heart never pops out – it is just a way of describing the feeling of fear. Allen’s feeling is described as if it actually happened. There are no such words used like “Allen felt as if his heart…” or “Allen could feel his heart…”; the description is quick – just like the action and the reaction – no time to think or feel or ponder. Here the lion crouched to pounce and there Allen’s heart popped out. There is no deep mental processing involved (not even in the description).

Pulse Descriptions are often found really powerful as these descriptions infinitely reduce the distance between the reader’s and the character’s mind. Readers can easily be turned insensitive towards the character by reading words like “she is feeling…” because these may become the source of distraction for the reader, and may even result in the loss of interest due to unnecessary words. Pulse Descriptions are best for the situations where you want your readers to sit right in the center of your character’s head and listen to all the noises he has got inside him, because Pulse Descriptions actually work that way; the words become the sounds and images for the reader – and these images and sounds are not just any images, they are the ones that exist inside the character’s mind. And remember, these noises are of a subconscious mind, and sometimes the echoes can be coming from the cave of the unconscious, which makes the Pulse Descriptions as deep as an abyss, as complex as infinity.

Pulse Descriptions (or PDs) are not for the situations where you want the reader to see through the character without any external interference – rather you want your character to remain (partly or completely) a mystery. Of course, PD technique is not a one-way thing. It is not that if you want to describe your character through PDs you are forbidden to simultaneously use any other technique – you can have a blend of different descriptions to give a deeper insight to the character’s personality. However, to clearly explain my idea about PDs I must not blend different techniques in my examples and maintain simplicity. So, back to my previous point. Use PDs to open up your character’s head and show it to the reader what he has got inside.

The previous example was in third person narrative, take an example of Pulse Description in first person narrative:

“Hey Allen! This way.” – my friend’s hand guides me to a corridor, so I am following him.

I am passing through one of the most wretched corridors of my school. We used to come here to see our senior school mates.

Look at this, man! The white of the chalks. It is still present on the classroom desks –
even after the two years of this school being closed.

“Hey, look at this dust all around. I love the smell of the dust, Allen”, my friend speaks
touching the back of one of the chairs of the classroom.

I am all dust – my body is all dust, my clothes are dirty — Allen — here — the dust of the chairs is all over me. This dusty irritation is biting me, gnawing me — Allen — Look at my skin — it’s itching hard — a blanket of thorns covering my body, perforating my skin.

“Allen! Where are you lost, man? I have been calling you and you are just lost somewhere, or dreaming, I don’t know.
Where are you?” – holding my arms he yells.
– Oh, nothing. Just my shirt.
– What’s on the shirt?
– Nothing – just the dirt.
– I can’t see any.
– Yeah, can’t see any.
– Stupid!

Can you identify the PD used in the above scene? If you say this one – “I am all dust…” then you are correct. We all know that Allen went into a thought about his body being dusty and dirty just because his friend talked about it and he has viewed the dust. And this thought went too far, to an extent where it has become a feeling. Let us just do an experiment and see what happens if we add the declaration words and read the passage again:

“Hey Allen! This way.” – my friend’s hand guides me to a corridor, so I am following
him.

I am passing through one of the most wretched corridors of my school. We used to
come here to see our senior school mates.

In front are little heaps of white powder. Man! The white of the chalks. So strange to see that it is still present on the classroom desks – even after the two years of this school being closed.

“Hey, look at this dust all around. I love the smell of the dust, Allen”, he speaks
touching the back of one of the chairs of the classroom.

I am feeling that I am all covered in the dust and my body has also become like dust. My clothes also appear to be dirty as if the dust of the chairs is all over me. My skin feels as if this dusty irritation is biting me, gnawing me. “Allen” – my friend seems to be calling me. But, look at my skin. God! It’s itching like I have worn a blanket of thorns over my body and its perforating my skin.

“Allen! Where are you lost, man? I have been calling you and you are just lost
somewhere, or dreaming, I don’t know. Where are you?” – holding my arms he yells.
– Oh, nothing. Just my shirt.
– What’s on the shirt?
– Nothing – just the dirt.
– I can’t see any.
– Yeah, can’t see any.
– Stupid!

The difference is clear. In the previous passage the reader starts living the truth of Allen just because the state of his body has become a reality. The irritation he is feeling is not just a feeling but a reality. Things are actually happening to him – they are not just appearing to be happening: he isn’t feeling the dust on his body that’s irritating, the dust is actually there that’s irritating. In the second passage, abstraction remains abstraction, whereas in the first page, the abstraction becomes reality for Allen (and for the reader as well).

And that sudden presence of Allen’s name in Allen’s thoughts, like an alien encroaching his mind, is a point of disturbance for the reader. This is later revealed to him (like an epiphany) when the reader knows that the things Allen’s consciousness was not attentive towards have instantly become part of his subconscious thoughts. Whereas, in the second passage, Allen’s explicit mentioning of his friend’s call reveals that Allen is not attentive towards it and his friend’s presence is addressed by his consciousness, not his subconscious. To put it simple, Allen is more conscious in the second passage than in the first one.

This means that the reader is directly open to Allen’s subconscious (the purer thoughts) in the first passage therefore the narration is reliable; whereas in the second passage the reader is open to Allen’s subconscious that is sullied by his consciousness, which makes the narration unreliable. In the first passage, what he thought has been directly put into words, whereas in the second passage his thoughts are garbed in the phrase “I am feeling..” which makes Allen’s mind conscious and self-aware, which makes his statements prone to extraneous intrusions.

Gestural Descriptions

Those passages that reveal the mind of the character by describing her gestures and body movements, I call them, Gestural Descriptions. These descriptions do not show what’s inside the mind; rather the writer leaves this job to the reader to decipher the state of the mind of the character. To put it differently, Gestural Descriptions (or GDs) create room for the reader to understand the state of the mind by looking at the state of the body.

The juice he drank yesterday was not for him. He realized this when his father was standing before him and yelling. While his father was berating him, the palms of his hands were cooling down, slightly shivering, and searching to get hold of something in the air. He could feel the carpet beneath his naked small feet. He started rubbing his toes on the rough carpet, while his eyes fixed somewhere in the air.

“Stand straight, and listen to me!”

His eyes widen, and shoulders shuddered and straighten up.

“You are not supposed to drink from daddy’s glass, d’youunderstand? It’s not healthy for you, John – you getting me – eh?”

The little fellow’s brows raised up and turned into small arches, eyes wider than before, lips quivering, and cheeks pale.

In this passage there is no information that what’s happening in the child’s mind; however, the writer has left clues for us. There is nowhere in the passage describing how the child is feeling about the situation, but by the time you read the passage you get the idea. This description is reliable as it is describing what is observable by any viewer – the element of objectivity is there. In the first passage the narrator (Allen) was describing his feelings which may or may not be true – partly because the narration is in the first person and partly because the subject of the narrator is himself.

Please also note that, unlike the first passage, the description of the second passage is very carefully written and no psychological or emotional words are used to avoid subjectivity – to make the narration completely objective. However, in the second passage there are entire clauses written that can be counted as subjective opinion. For example, this line:

My skin feels as if this dusty irritation is biting me, gnawing me

The same experience has been described objectively, which adds power, in the first passage.

This dusty irritation is biting me, gnawing me

It brings words into action; things are not just in the mind rather in life. The irritation that Allen feels on his skin is not just a state of mind; it becomes a reality for him, which in the first passage appears to the readers as inescapable.

About the Author
hasan malik

Hassan Malik says about himself: I am a 24 years old Master in English Literature from Government College University, Lahore. I have a keen interest in psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, sociology, painting and the creative process. I enjoy and love reading these subjects, not in the form of books but in the form of life. I quite often say about my interests, “I am a psychologist – not by degree or certification, but by observation — I read people!”, and I say that quite amusingly.