Characterisation: an Experiment


We have talked about characterisation and how interesting are characters who have a contradiction between their appearance details and their actions. Professor Litt told us to be wary of writing to confirm what the reader already knows or suspects. unexpected actions of the characters are, in fact, more interesting. But how to make this contradiction real? Couldn’t it become too unrealistic? Of course, when we talk about realism, we must take into consideration what we are writing for who. That changes the perspectives. Anyway, we started our workshop on characterisation by making an experiment. First of all, Professor Litt wanted us to tell him all the information that our identity cards would have.

ID number


Full Name






Hair Colour



Organ Donor



Then, he wanted us to guess how much of this information is given in the first page of the chapter about Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of The Vanities. All my classmates said that they thought it was going to be 10 of these categories, and I was the only one who said 5 or 6. When the Professor said that he thought it was going to be 10 as well, I felt a bit stupid, but then we checked: it was really six! In the first page, Tom Wolfe says the full name (Sherman McCoy), his address (Park Avenue), his sex (“he”), his height (tall, imposing), his hair colour (sandy brown), his age (30).


Anyway, Tom Wolfe gives a lot of other information that wouldn’t fit an ID card, for example, he is very specific on Sherman’s clothes. Why does Wolfe present Sherman like this, giving these pieces of information? What is he doing in terms of details and actions? First of all, he does not present Sherman in a typically yuppy moment. He’s not represented as a winner. Sherman’s story starts with him walking the dog, or, better, with him down on his knees before the dog, trying to make him wear the leash. This is not really a “master of the universe” kind of action. How so? Probably because Sherman doesn’t seem the kind of person everyone would emphatize with, but starting his story this way, Wolfe makes him more “similar” to everyone of us. More human. Wolfe is also very specific about the clothes and the address of our hero – he has the preppy style which is related to very famous and private schools. In describing him, he talks about his father. Sherman’s rich. Wolfe shows us Sherman’s financial situation without telling us.

What about Sherman’s name? Is there any reason why Tom Wolfe chose it? Apparently, “the real McCoy” is an English expression which means “the real thing”. Also, Sherman Tank is also the cockney slang for wank (masturbate). Interesting. There is always a reason for everything. Anyway, this exercise was very helpful to understand that even if there are some categories and some details that are very important when identifying someone (age, name and so on), many other information about characters can tell us a lot about them, and all those pieces of information can mean important details of our characters’ lives. Tom Wolfe is very good in showing without telling and in making the narrative flows even when he’s giving us information about his characters.



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