Actions Speak Louder

One of the first pieces of writing advice almost all new writers hear is the old adage “Show don’t tell.” Back when I first started writing, I fully loathed hearing people say that–mostly because I don’t think anyone ever explained it very well beyond “don’t use to be verbs.” While trying to stay away from weak verbs is generally good advice, even brand new writers tend to realize going on a “to be” witch hunt get you awkward prose (at least I did when I had an English teacher tell us to write a story without a single was or were).

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More than being about to be verbs, though, showing and not telling has to do with “showing” the reader actions and emotions rather than “telling” them what your character is like or is feeling. For example, you could tell a reader, “She was a quiet girl and wanted to be left alone” or you could show a little girl sitting at the back of a classroom, her shoulders pulled up to her ears as she prays in her head that no one comes to talk to her. While both make the same general point, the second paints a much more vivid picture and pulls the reader into the scene rather than just giving them statements to remember.

While it’s good to stay away from weak/telling phrases in general (I was; I felt; I wanted; I liked…) showing becomes immeasurably important when it comes to fleshing out characters. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your readers that your character is quiet and shy, if all you show is your character being the center of attention at party after party, your character is going to read as someone loud and outgoing. When it comes to characterization, actions truly do speak louder than words.
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So, instead of telling your reader character traits:

1. Look for scenes that show important traits. For example, rather than telling the reader that your character is a good fighter (or having people talk about how good a fighter that character is–as seems common in TV shows) look for a scene where your character will be able to show off those skills.

2. Shape dialogue to show personality. No two people speak entirely alike. Some people share certain verbal tics, but personality shapes word choice, slang usage, wordiness, and all those other things that make a character sound like a person rather than the author. If your character is shy and quiet, their dialogue will likely be shorter and meeker than a character who loves attention and so pontificates whenever given the chance.

3. Make a point when your character is acting out of character. Sometimes, you’ll need your “stickler for the rules” character to go against type and break into work to steal a file. That’s fine, as long as you show that that’s not who your character normally is. Make a point that your character is nervous/uncomfortable with what’s happening or take the time for them to struggle with making the decision to act against who they are (ideally after you’ve already shown who the character normally is earlier on). By showing what is happening is the exception to the rule will help keep the reader from seeing a strange disconnect between what they’ve heard about the character and what they’ve seen.

Just remember, when it comes to learning about characters, seeing how they act is much more powerful than hearing once or twice or ten times that the character is X. Use showing to your advantage, even if you still need some was and weres in there.

Through His/Her Eyes

As October draws to a close, NaNoWriMo grows ever closer. And with thousands of writers joining the fray, I’m starting to get more and more questions about POV (Point of View). Last week I covered POV Bloat (having so many POV characters it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any of them), today I’ll be talking about how it’s possible to flesh out characters who aren’t POV characters.

Over the past week, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from people who are considering–but aren’t sure about–using first person is: “I feel like first person would make for a stronger narrative, but I’m worried about being able to get in the other characters’ motivations.”

What always worries me about comments like that is the feeling that authors are relying on being inside a character’s head to tell information rather than working on showing events that let the reader learn about the characters organically.

Remember, it is not necessary to be in a character’s head for the reader to learn a lot about them. It’s not even necessary for a POV character to tell readers about him/herself. After all, “I don’t like going to zoos because…” is much less interesting for the reader than a character being dragged to the zoo and then going into fits because of a bad experience that then comes out. So, if you’re trying to build up a character without being in their head, try to:

1. Look for places you can show personalities rather than tell the reader about them. It is possible to bring across quite a bit about a character by showing how they interact with the world rather than relying on an internal monologue. There is an entire trope named “Pet the Dog” where a villain is shown to not be entirely evil by him/her having a scene where he/she is kind to an animal. Perhaps you don’t want to go with that specific example–as it is a bit of a cliché at this point–but character-specific scenes that give insight are always helpful, no matter who the character is.

2. Use dialogue. Sure, you don’t want your character to suddenly drop in and start spouting off his/her life story for no reason, but it is often possible to get characters to naturally talk about themselves here and there at least enough to show deeper motivations without needing to be inside that character’s head (just try not to overdo it or you could end up with the reader wondering why that character is always spouting off long chunks of backstory for no apparent reason).  Note: It is also possible to have other characters discuss the character you need more information about to get a similar effect.

and last but not least:

3. Trust your writing. If you have developed well-rounded, realistic characters, it won’t be necessary to explain that they have more thoughts and motivations than might come across just in the narrative. When characters feel deep, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader they have depth. (If you’re finding you’re having problems making a character feel real in small acts, consider doing more character building before continuing what you’re writing. That will likely come more in handy than just having a character think about who they are).

To everyone participating: happy NaNo planning!