“I’m having trouble developing fully-rounded characters and showing how they change as the plot progresses.”
— Charles E.
“My go-to strategies for character development are either describing the clothes that a character is wearing or what they order if they sit down at a restaurant.”
— Cooper S.
Here is an actual character description from my very first novel attempt that will never see the light of day:
“. . .She finally looked in the mirror to inspect her work.
She was a fairly thin, tall girl for her age. She looked down at her skirt that didn’t quite reach to the floor – she had outgrown that too a few years ago – all the way up to her thin face which was framed in the uncontrollable locks. Her green-gray eyes and straight pointed nose gave her the look of a hawk…Now Keilli ran a finger over the large white scar that ran from her forehead on the right all the way down to her jaw on the same side. Lord Trellan had told her that it had been on her face when he’d found her, though then it had been a new wound. It was the most prominent feature on her face, something she’d always disliked. But there was no time to linger on personal appearance now.”
Seriously. No more lingering. Please.
Ever heard of that little phrase “Show, Don’t Tell”? Good. You’re going to need it.
Decide if the following sentences are showing or telling:
1) “Ingrid was quirky and always had my attention when she walked in a room.”
I don’t want you to tell me that Ingrid’s quirky. I want to figure it out for myself. Any old fool can say that someone’s quirky. It’s harder to show that she’s quirky.
So, let’s talk about some ways that we could show that she’s quirky. First we need a scene. Maybe this is the first time the narrator is meeting Ingrid. Instead of saying something like “All my friends told me she was kind of a weird girl,” let’s show her being weird:
“The door flung open. A wheezing trumpet preceded the woman who walked in. The notes rose tremulously and cracked, not quite hitting the notes. She lowered the trumpet when she came to our table, grinned with a wide mouth and thin lips, and said, ‘Shall I serenade you?’
‘Aren’t you supposed to serenade someone you want to woo?’ I said automatically.
The trumpeter smiled. ‘You have a good energy.’ Before I could reply she lifted the trumpet to her lips and blared another note into my face.”
Now we know not only that she’s quirky, but that she seems to be a self-proclaimed empath, she loves playing the trumpet, and she’s not concerned about what others think about her. What’s more, we know the narrator is a chronic flirt. We learned so much more than if we had just said that Ingrid was quirky!
2) “He wore a battered old suit from the seventies.”
This does tell me something about his character, but it gives me nothing to “see”. We live through our five senses (some of us with a sixth) and so we need concrete details that are going to ground us in the real world. How does the narrator (unless it’s an omniscient narrator) even know that the suit is from the 70s?
Let’s decide on two sensory details to give us a better idea of this man and his beloved jacket. Obviously he’s either so fond of it that he won’t wear another one, or he’s too cheap to buy himself a new one. So what if our main character has an encounter like this:
“A man’s withered shoulder brushed Isabel’s as she wandered the crowd. A ragged seam snagged her bare arm. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, and both breath and coat reeked of smoke.”
This way we get a much clearer sense of who this man is – polite maybe, but with a ragged jacket and smoke smell (which is, incidentally, one of the most powerful senses you can use)
3) “I’m hungry,” he said.
“You’re always hungry,” she said.
Ah, dialogue. Newbie authors make the mistake of thinking that if it’s dialogue, it must be showing instead of telling, because it’s a character showing his feelings! But what about dialogue like this:
“Okay,” he said. “remember that time when I fell from a tree and broke my leg? Well, I got three pins in it to hold it together, and that’s why I walk funny.”
Unless your character is the type of person who espouses random personal details, I doubt most people would actually say this. They’d be more likely to limp and maybe crack an inside joke (“’Never climb a tree on a Tuesday,’ he said. She smiled, glanced at his knee, and glanced away.”). If both characters actually do remember the incident, there would be no reason for our male hero to give the details of it.
Going back to the first example, a character saying “I’m hungry” is about as ‘telling’ as it gets. Show me that they’re always hungry with an urgent rumbling of the belly:
“The moment they walked in the door he lunged for the plate of hors d’oeuvres and stuffed three in his mouth at once. As he licked the flaky crumbs from his fingers their eyes met. “What?” he said. She rolled her eyes and pointedly took only one mini sausage.”
Now we see that he’s not only perpetually hungry, but hungry enough to be rude about it at a friend’s party. The woman in the scene knows the man well enough to simply roll her eyes – he’s done this before.
What does it all mean?
It’s all about the scene. A lot of people like to separate plot and character. The name of the game is setting a scene in which a character not only shows something about herself but also progresses the plot forward. And, as the plot develops, characters are going to show different sides of themselves. Telling the reader that a character has changed is a copout. Show me how they’re different.
I’m telling on you!
It’s okay to ‘tell’ sometimes. Sometimes you’ll need it to move a scene along. Sometimes you need it to develop the narrator, whose perspective might gloss over the details. Sometimes all you need is a few ‘showing’ details to make a character come to life. This is a weapon, not a toy. Use it sparingly.
What’s the best character you’ve ever written? How did you make them come to life?
Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] rebeccaannjordan [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here!
With a B.A. in B.S. (translation: English Major), Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author in San Diego. She has published short pieces in Fiction Vortex, Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal, and more, and currently acts as Junior Assistant Editor at Bartleby Snopes. Her fetishes include controversial grammar, mythological happenings and yarn-swapping.