Guest Post by Julie Pendray...
Ramona.Patch.com in Ramona, CA. Patch is a local news subsidiary of AOL. She has been a reporter, editor, writer or newscaster in TV, radio, print and online news operations in California and New Zealand, spanning 20 years. She has presented at the San Diego State University Extension Annual Writers’ Conference and taught Journalism at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA.
Show Don’t Tell and Know Your Character
Next time you are tempted to write that someone is angry or happy, try to show us instead. Did he flush red in the face? Did he grin from ear to ear? Most people are very visual; we want to “see it.”
Experienced writers try to let a person’s actions speak for themselves. We can all identify with someone who perspires or clears his throat when nervous or shakes when afraid. Showing us that way is more descriptive and interesting. It makes us guess at the feelings and draw conclusions, so it’s engaging. Remember, the easiest thing for a reader to do is stop reading. Engagement is important.
Actions show personality and character. People express shyness, for example, differently. Some may hide, while others may cover it by talking too much to compensate. Tell us about your character by showing us how they deal with life.
In television, for example, cameramen tend to show someone’s sweaty brow or fidgety habits when a person is nervous about answering a tough question. They were famous for using this effect on 60 Minutes with CBS News reporter Mike Wallace.
In print, reporters might highlight actions or quotes that show patterns, which then show personality.
I once wrote a news feature about a retired geologist who volunteered many hours over the years leading local hikes. I interviewed him at home because the public only knew him out on the trails. As I asked him questions, he pulled out lists to refer to. Eventually, I decided to use this aspect of the lists in the story. He is a man who keeps lists of all the trails he has walked—and how many times, and on which dates and with which groups—as well as the number of marathons he has run—and with whom and where—and the number of vacations he has taken with his wife—to which destinations.
By including this aspect of his personality, I was able to show readers, without telling them, that he is meticulous and has a desire to remember his life accurately. He is a retired geologist—a type of career in which a person uses data. No surprise. But I also told them about the classical music in the background and the painting of his old church on the wall. You can show readers, without telling them, what your character’s religious beliefs might be and what they love.
You can also use personality clues like this to foreshadow why a person might do something later in the book.
Give your characters in fiction the same richness and depth that you find in real life. Listen to people in coffee shops and in planes and elevators and standing waiting to cross a road. What are they talking about? What is meaningful to them? What would your character do under certain circumstances?
Here are some examples:
In my family, whenever a trauma or difficult situation would arise, we would make tea, because we are of British descent. When my dad was dying of cancer and some days were so hard, the rest of us would gather in the kitchen and make “a lovely cup of tea” to comfort ourselves. By the way, it was black tea, with milk, which shows our British ancestry. Use these details.
In the book “The Mermaid’s Chair” by Sue Monk Kidd, the main character’s husband, Hugh, always cooks big breakfasts in crises. For example, he makes her an omelet when her mother, in another state, has gone into dementia and chopped off her finger with a meat cleaver.
What happens to your character when a loved one dies, or when a lover leaves, or a son doesn’t come home? Does your character have an affair? Does he buy a sport car? Take a trip? Know him well. Make him real. Let him live and find out for yourself what he would do.
Think intimately about all aspects of the character you’ve created. What does she wear? What vegetables does she buy at the store? What are her habits, routines, obsessions? What kind of neighborhood does she live in? What kind of secrets does she keep? What grudges does she bear? Who is she close to? What drives her? What is she passionate about? Bored with? Make her multi-dimensional—not all good, not all bad. Let her come alive and speak for herself and show us how she feels.
Love writing. Love life.