Characterizing Details: How Thomas Harris Does It

I read Red Dragon again recently.  Let’s look at the details Thomas Harris chose for his antagonist’s introduction, in Chapter 9, which consists of a scene at work and a scene at home.  These details are mostly from the first scene, his public persona.

Name:

  • Francis Dolarhyde.
  • People at work call him Mr. D, which suggests to me that they like him.
  • We know from earlier in the story that the cops call him the Tooth Fairy, because he bites his victims and has crooked teeth.
  • We learn in the second scene that he thinks of himself as the Red Dragon.

Gender:

  • Male

Age:

  • 30s

Vocation:

  • He develops home-movie film at Gateway Film Laboratory.

Dominant Impression:

  • First Scene: He’s a nice, well-liked and sensitive guy who’s self-conscious about his face and speech.
  • Second Scene: He’s creepy.

Wants:

  • As the first scene opens, Mr. D is in the cafeteria “waiting for a Hamburger.”
  • In the darkroom, he wants silence.
  • At home “He wanted to go through this slowly, but now he could not wait.”

Difficulty:

  • With Speech: Dolarhyde has trouble saying the letter S, so he stops himself before saying words like “yes,” “stopped,” “sing,” and “jokes” to rephrase or choose another word.
  • With Filming: He had difficulty filming his last murders in the manner he wanted.

Vulnerable:

  • People seem to think he needs coddling:  A woman sees Mr. D in the cafeteria and, after some consideration, approaches him. “Will you sit down with me a minute? I want to tell you something.”  She wants to apologize to Mr. D for Bob who, apparently, was making people laugh earlier by doing impressions, including one of Mr. D.
  • People know Mr. D’s sensitive about his face. They keep their eyes on certain areas and away from other areas: the woman manages “to look from her napkin to his goggles without lingering on the way.”

Contradiction:

  • The woman apologizing seems to represent to us that his coworkers like him.  But when she leaves, Dolarhyde “thought, correctly, that Eileen did not appreciate him. No one did, actually.”  It’s that word “correctly,” an intrusion by the narrator, that, for me, really made this feel like a contradiction rather than just a self-pitying thought.
  • The first scene conveys Mr. D’s dominant public impression: that he’s a nice, well-liked guy who’s sensitive about his face and speech.  And then we get to scene two: Beneath all that likable and sympathetic exterior, he’s the Tooth Fairy.  The film he receives at work is how he finds his victims.

Secret:

  • He’s a serial killer.  It’s only in the second scene, when he’s at home, that we start picking up on this fact.
  • He gets his victims from the film at work: “Families were mailing their applications to him every day.”
  • He videotapes his murders and splices them with video of himself: “When the evening shift ended, he remained alone in the darkroom to develop, dry, and splice some film of his own.”

Manner:

  • He’s introverted, but not a pushover:
    • When Eileen apologizes for Bob and says how red Bob’s face got when he realized what he’d done, Dolarhyde says, “He went on though.”
    • When she continues to say how sorry Bob was, that he got caught up in making people laugh, Dolarhyde points out specifically how offensively Bob went on: “He invited me to . . . perform a duet with him.”
    • When Eileen then tries to say what a great, sensitive guy Bob is when he’s not drunk, Dolarhyde says, “I bet. Tender, I imagine.”  If the reader wasn’t sure whether or not this was sarcasm, Thomas has the woman say, “Pardon?” Instead of repeating himself, which he would probably do if the words were sincere, Dolarhyde changes the subject: “I think you’re good for [Bob], Eileen.”
    • Dolarhyde likes a quiet darkroom and doesn’t let his assistants chat.

Traits:

  • He doesn’t socialize much:
    • Eileen says, “Everybody was having a good time at the party and we were glad you came by . . . Real glad, and surprised, too.”
    • When in the darkroom, “Dolarhyde discouraged chatter among his assistants and communicated with them largely in gestures.”
  • He holds on to things: He’s got his long-dead grandmother’s things right where she left them, including her dentures.

Mannerisms:

  • He uses words like golly:  He says, “Well, I don’t want [Bob] to feel terrible. I don’t want that. Tell him for me. And it won’t make it any different here at the plant. Golly, if I had talent like Bob I’d make jo . . . a joke all the time.”
  • He hides the part of his face he’s sensitive about: “Dolarhyde’s voice was muffled by his hand. When seated, he always pressed the knuckle of his forefinger under his nose.”

Status:

  • He’s the boss when he’s at work in his darkroom, and he’s able to keep the darkroom quiet: “Dolarhyde discouraged chatter among his assistants.”
  • In the cafeteria, he has less status: He allows himself to be persuaded not to just talk, but to sit down and talk, and to talk about what is probably the last thing he’d like to talk about: people making fun of his speech.

Chapter 9 is a little less than nine pages, and the first scene is a little less than three pages.  It’s pretty amazing just how much can be conveyed about a character in so few words.  Pretty much everything a reader needs to know.

Well, that’s it for the antagonist of Red Dragon.

I clipped another example of detail selection a few weeks ago, from Janet Evanovich’s Hardcore Twenty-Four, so let’s include it too.

This is detail and name selection for a minor character.  Here’s the story’s opening line:

“Simon Diggery and Ethel, his pet boa constrictor, were about fifty feet from Simon’s rust bucket double-wide. . . . Simon is a professional grave robber.”

Get it?  His name is Diggery.

This monicker helps us remember who he is when he’s mentioned later, and this “helping us remember” is important, because Diggery is mentioned a lot.  He and his snake motivate Stephanie’s actions for most of the book.  Without this particular name, or something equally telling, we’d have a hard time remembering this character or why he’s important, because soon after Diggery is introduced, he goes to jail, and we never actually see him again, on the page, until the end of the book.

***

Well, that’s it for me. What about you?  What are some of your favorite characterizing descriptions?  Tell us in the comments!

If you found this post helpful please feel free to share it. There are share buttons below.  And, if this is your first time here, welcome!  Be sure to sign up for the feed so you never miss a tool, and sign up for the newsletter to receive our 19-page Character Development Workbook.  Thank you!

UP NEXT, IN TWO FRIDAYS

We’ll see if we can incorporate all of our character tools into character introductions that draw in the reader.  Tall order.  See you then!

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