Using language to reflect character traits
In Chinese philosophy the yin-yang symbol represents dynamic opposites that make up a whole—unity in duality. The yin represents the feminine aspect: passive, dark, negative, downward-seeking, consuming and corresponding to the night. The yang represents the masculine aspect: active, light, positive, upward-seeking, producing and corresponding to the daytime. The circles that lie within and encompass the yin-yang symbol represent the whole that the two sides make.
In Patricia Hampl’s memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, she writes about the life and death of her mother and father. Her mother, a librarian and the family archivist, is piercing, cold, sharp-tongued, and looks for the negative in people. Her father, a florist dedicated to the art of beauty, is giving, positive, and always looking to lift others up.
Though we learn much about Hampl’s family history, their location in the “middle” of the country and in life, her story is really about finding who she is in the midst of these two strong aspects of herself: feminine and masculine, mother and father.
Hampl’s prose perfectly reflects this duality: at times beautiful and lyrical, at times cold, sharp, and biting.
From the beginning, Hampl wishes to identify herself more with her father (thus the title of the memoir). And, she writes of her mother:
“Cross her path and the poisoned dart springs from the quiver of her heart. The look. Narrowed eyes, pinched disdainful mouth, brilliant mime of venomous dislike.”
Notice the hard sounds, the short two-word fragment, the longer fragment. The way the prose is shaped reflects the character of her mother, (and an aspect of the writer). Later, she writes of her mother: “She learned to level the world with a strangely knowing mistrust, an ice chip of irony on her slouched shoulder.” Again, notice the harshness of the “i’s”: mistrust, ice, chip, irony, followed by the slouched shoulder “s’s”.
Her father’s world is one of flowers, light, beauty, truth—the yang—and Hampl’s prose, when she writes of her father, reflects these qualities:
“We could smile at the sighing charity ladies: after all, he was ours. That we never doubted. Only the flowers themselves might have a stronger claim on him, the petals panting in the moist glass houses on Banfil Street below the hill. The harem of fragile dependents my handsome father tended…”
Hampl uses romantic, lyrical language to describe her father: sighing charity ladies, petals panting, moist glass houses, harem, handsome.
Later, she writes about her father:
“He was by nature a quiet man…happier outside of language—in a November duck blind, summers in a fishing boat, or on Lake Milles Lacs ice fishing…in the greenhouse design room on a Sunday afternoon. He brought this silence, an aura of quiet, to the flowers he arranged.
But he didn’t arrange them. It was himself he arranged, standing at the ready, sharp knife moving over his materials lightly, surely, like a Japanese ink brush.”
Again, Hampl uses lyrical language, expansive settings, and the image of the soft, flowing strokes of a Japanese ink brush to describe the inner qualities of her father—the qualities she wants to hold within herself.
In the end, Hampl discovers she is just as much, if not more, her mother’s daughter, than her father’s. The two aspects of herself—mother and father, yin and yang—fuse into a whole and are, again, reflected in her prose—short and long, sharp and lyrical: “And in the end, not unhappy about it. Wasting my life. Just gliding in the slipstream of that voice, the tatters of what was left of her spun-silk descriptions.”
Before you write, as you write, and during your rewrites, think about how Hampl uses language to deepen the sense of her characters. Can you find a way to make your words reflect your characters?