Friday Writing Experiment No. 26: Distinguishing Features


Our aunt Meterling stood over six feet tall, a giantess, a tree. From her limbs came huge hands, which always held a shower of snacks for us children. We could place two of our feet in one of her sandals, and her green shawl made for a roof to cover our play forts. We loved Meterling, because she was so devotedly freakish, because she rained everyone with affection, and because we felt that anyone that tall had to be supernaturally gifted. No one actually said she was a ghost, or a saint, or a witch, but we watched for signs nevertheless. She knew we suspected her of tricks, for she often smiled at us and displayed sleight of hand, pulling coins and shells out of thin air. But that, said Rasi, didn’t prove anything; Rasi had read The Puffin Book of Magic Tricks and pretty much knew them all, and was not so easily impressed.

Thus begins the novel As Sweet As Honey by my good friend Indira Ganesan. It’s just been published by Knopf.

Indira’s writing possesses a beautiful tone: warm, seductive, lots of colour and sense experiences. And in this book she brings to life a whole set of characters from a family whose lives take us to a fictitious island in the Indian Ocean, and then to England and the United States. It’s an intriguing and magical story about the surprises life throws in our way, and how families deal with them; ultimately, for me, it’s a book about how we make our homes.

And at the centre of the book is this amazing figure, wonderfully rendered: Meterling, the giant aunt. We’ve all had important figures in our childhoods, in our families, and we’ve also all met memorable characters in our reading. Meterling is the character who looms large, quite literally, in this book, and she does so through the simple fact that she’s so tall.

I remember Indira sharing early selections from this book at readings, and that giantess really stuck in my mind ever since. It’s such a simple yet powerful thing to do (and the most powerful things are usually the simplest): giving a character a distinctive physical attribute. And it can be helpful in letting the character take over the writing, too. Indira says: ‘Once I let Meterling become the protagonist, the book became so much easier to write.’

External features, in many ways, also define the inner lives of the characters who possess them, but not always in predictable ways. And this is where the writing gets interesting. As well as Meterling, I’m thinking of one of my favourite characters of late: Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf wit and scheming genius of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. But there are other traits, not just height: scars, missing limbs, extra limbs, freckles (Anne of Green Gables), hair colour, hair deficiency, hairiness, body weight, big feet, little hands, harelips (Precious Bane! Her mother: ‘Could I help it if the hare crossed my path – could I help it?’).

So, this week, write the opening page of a novel in which you introduce a character who, by dint of some physical attribute, will loom large in the lives of all the other characters.

And do read Indira’s book as well! Amazon might be the easiest place to buy in the UK, but try to support your local indie if you can, especially if you are in the US. It’s also available from HarperCollins India in South Asia, and as an audiobook from Audible (this might be a lovely one to have read to you, in fact). And here’s Indira’s Facebook Page, too.

2 thoughts on “Friday Writing Experiment No. 26: Distinguishing Features

  1. Here’s one I did earlier: a snippet from the first page or two of Talking to the Dead. It’s not quite what you’re talking about in this exercise, but it’s pretty close. Anyway. Here goes:

    Matthews is a big man. Not gym-big, but Welsh-big, with the sort of comfortable muscularity that suggests a past involving farm work, rugby and beer. He has remarkably pale eyes and thick dark hair. Even his fingers have little dark hairs running all the way to the final joint. He is the opposite of me.

    ‘Do you think you have a realistic idea of what police work involves?’

    I shrug. I don’t know. How are you meant to know if you haven’t done it? I say the sort of thing that I think I’m meant to say. I’m interested in law enforcement. I appreciate the value of a disciplined, methodical approach. Blah, blah. Yadda, yadda. Good little girl in her dark grey interview outfit saying all the things she’s meant to say.

    ‘You don’t think you might get bored?’

    ‘Bored?’ I laugh with relief. That’s what he was probing at. ‘Maybe. I hope so. I quite like a little boredom.’

  2. ‘Welsh-big’ is very funny, and gets my attention right away! Also ‘the opposite of me’ – would that be ‘English-little’, or am I being too anglocentric?! tho Fiona G is Welsh too, right? Guess she can get away with saying things like that in ways that Anne Robinson couldn’t.

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