Last month we took a general look at Show, Don’t Tell. Now let’s look at this very same topic in relation to characterisation.
Characters are the lynchpin of any story. And in particular, of any great romance. The more design and depth we dedicate to our characters, the more believable they become. The more relatable. The more our readers love or hate them. Long or loath to be a part of their lives.
How to start?
It’s important to get a sense of who your characters are. Where they are from. What they think, hope and feel.
There are two main ways to demonstrate characterisation:
- Direct Characterisation
These are direct statements about a character’s personality and/or emotions, ie, ‘telling’ statements.
- Indirect Characterisation
These are revelations about a character and their personality, ie, ‘showing’ statements.
Direct characterisation or ‘tell’ has its place in any story. Here, the author can reveal characterisation through another character’s point of view – either as part of their opinion or an observation.
Although ‘telling’ in it’s nature, direct characterisation can ‘show’ in a roundabout way. For example, it can show misinterpretation – when a character believes they have another character figured out, but they get it wrong. This is a great tool for demonstrating that character’s changing perspective for their counterpart throughout your story.
Direct characterisation is shorter and pacier and should be used when the ‘show’ version fails to add any value to the story or characterisation, or when you need to move the story along to a more critical scene.
Show: Melissa locked her front door and glanced at her watch. Late. Again. She clutched her handbag close to her chest and broke into a sprint, arriving four minutes later, out of breath, but in time to watch as the train rumbled out of the station.
Tell: Melissa sprinted for the train but arrived seconds too late. Same as she had every other morning that week.
This ‘tell’ example contains a mix of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ and works beautifully in moving the story along through Melissa’s daily run for the train, whilst still showing how she has a recurring tendency to be late. This, of course, may be foreshadowing for events later in the story, when Melissa’s lateness is important in relation to the plot or storyline. You might find this later event a more fitting place for ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up and vary your scenes. This is a great way to manipulate the pace of your story, whilst still providing all the necessary information to your readers.
Indirect characterisation or ‘show’ is a more challenging form of characterisation. It is more subtle and carries more weight, revealing not only who a character is, but why we as readers should believe this to be true. It shows a character’s traits as ingrained in their very psyche. It is a part of them, governing every facet of their personality and behavior.
I knew Kelly to be streetsmart and sassy, and if ever I became stranded on the wrong side of town, she’s the one person I’d want by my side.
Kelly always knew who was where on a city street. The wheels in her mind constantly turned, calculating the proximity of every person, attributing a possible threat level from one to ten. She never strolled. She stalked, every muscle coiled tight, both hands free and ready to respond at the first sign of danger. She was a panther on the prowl, and I knew I was always safe when she stood by my side.
Frank was angry.
Frank’s ears burned a fiery red, his nostrils flared as if at any moment fire and smoke would shoot out like lava from a wrathful volcano.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Indirect Characterisation.
We can group this form of characterisation into 3 types:
Show how your character actively deals with situations. By doing this, you can give hints as to their personality and/or insight into their past, how and why they are who they are on the pages of your book.
Tell: She tagged along, not noticing a puddle as she splashed it, soaking his leg – and hers – in the process. The damp didn’t seem to deter her. If anything, it made her even more determined. ‘Can’t we at least walk and talk at the same time?’
She scampered up beside him, ploughing through a puddle, splashing water halfway up his leg. Great!
Water plastered her trousers to her calf, but she bowled on forward, sticking to him like one of those yappy cat-dogs at his heels. ‘Can’t we at least walk and talk at the same time?’
In this second excerpt from Murder Most Unusual, we are shown Stacey’s dogged determination without saying she’s ‘determined’ and we also gain a sense of Chase’s less than endearing view of her and her behavior through his reference to a ‘yappy cat-dog’.
Tell: He could tell she didn’t feel like eating. He didn’t blame her. But starving herself wouldn’t bring her sister back.
She dropped the knife into the sink and stared blankly at the toast on her plate. Her hand wavered. Then she picked up a crumb and pushed it past her lips.
‘Starving yourself won’t help your sister, you know.’
Her head jerked back, eyes glistening. Grabbing the toast, she brought it to her mouth and sunk her teeth into the corner, gnawing at it like it was cardboard. ‘Who said I’m starving myself?’ The words were muffled, and as if to prove him wrong, she took another bite.
In this excerpt from Lethal in Love, we are shown Jayda’s loss, her pain, all through Seth’s point of view. We also have insight into Seth here, his empathy and perceptiveness towards her.
Tell: Medical examiner Rod Bearinger belonged to her father’s generation. He walked with the help of a cane and the sharp gaze behind his spectacles never missed a thing. That included an outfit that made her uncomfortable and her love for a job her father had loved well before her.
Medical examiner Rod Bearinger glanced up and nodded. ‘Jayda.’
He pushed up with his cane, leaning heavily against the brass T-handle. His bespectacled gaze gave Jayda a once-over. ‘Big night out?’
‘I wish.’ She tugged at the dipping neckline of her top. ‘Undercover op. But because I’m lead on the case . . .’
‘ . . . you had to bail? Well, good for you. Your dad must be proud.’
‘Thanks.’ Warmth flooded her cheeks. She ignored the butterflies in her chest, gesturing instead towards the woman who deserved their undivided attention. ‘Same MO?’
In this excerpt from Lethal in Love, we are given not only a visual of Rod Bearinger, but we learn that his knowledge of Jayda spans outside their working relationship. He knows her father, enough to know he’d be proud of her work and the person she’d become.
Tell: Jayda tensed. Tears filled her eyes and she unsuccessfully tried to blink them away.
Show: Jayda’s grip on the phone tightened. She focused on the far wall of her study and blinked. The paisley patterned wallpaper wavered and blurred as she swallowed and blinked again.
Again, in this excerpt from Lethal in Love, we have a snapshot of Jayda fighting for control over her the pain and loss of losing a loved one.
This can be approached in two ways:
- Physical Interaction – how a character acts and reacts, as well as how other characters respond to them, what they think, say and do.
Tell: Glen was caring and thoughtful.
Every Friday Glen helped old Mr Winthrop with his lawns. He told us it was for extra credit, but he already had all the credit he needed. After he was done, he’d take the long way home, stop by Mrs Connelly’s for hot chocolate and bikkies. While there, he’d clean her windows. He said he visited because Mrs C made the best choc chip cookies on the street, but I knew that was a lie. He liked mine more.
Here we are shown in detail just how Glen demonstrates his caring and thoughtfulness. We are also given insight into his and the point of view character’s relationship.
Tell: She thought Brad was a good person, but how could she be sure?
Brad walked on the road side. He let me vent when life got too much, made me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry. And he got that anything chocolate made everything better. He kept a bar in his pocket. Turkish delight, my favourite. He was perfect. But that didn’t mean he was perfect for me.
Here we are given an insight into Brad and the point of view character’s relationship – how he treats her and how she views this treatment, and Brad.
- Verbal Interaction – dialogue between a character and the people around them.
Tell: It made him crazy to think she was protecting her bastard ex.
“Stop protecting that bastard!” He scrubbed the back of his neck. “He’s dangerous and slime and not worth a damn.”
Rather than telling us that the point of view character is angry, we are shown through both his reaction and his dialogue.
Tell: He said he didn’t know what she meant, but she knew he was lying. Being a sheriff, his skills of deception should have been better.
Show: “I don’t know what you mean.” He stepped back, so obviously trying not to shuffle.
“As if, Sonny Dawson!” Cherie snorted, pinning him with her no nonsense glare. “For the sake of Dragonfly Bay, your sheriffing skills better exceed your tale-spinning skills.”
Here, not only are we guided through Cherie’s view of Sonny and his lies, but we are also given a hint of Cherie’s personality and insight into how these two characters relate to one another.
Tell: She straightened, considering all the facts. Nothing added up, making her more certain than ever. This wasn’t the Night Terror.
Show: She straightened, her mind racing. First Gina Hennessey, then Angelique Sutton. Two deaths that didn’t add up. Never had she been more certain. ‘It’s not the Night Terror.’
Here, instead of being told the point of view character is considering all the facts, we are dropped into her mind and see her doing just this before she voices her opinion.
What a person thinks and how they react internally can reveal a lot about their character. It can also be a more inclusive way of letting the reader know how they feel about a particular situation.
Tell: She thought Brad was a good person, but how could she be sure?
Show: Brad was a good person, wasn’t he?
A thought, just seven words, and we are dropped straight into the point of view character’s mind to be shown exactly what she thinks about Brad.
The heels made the distance seem endless. She hoped she didn’t trip. Up one step, and only four more to go.
Her toe caught and she tripped. She could imagine Shazz’s dismay, her words of warning and care for her beloved designer shoes still fresh in her mind.
The hellish heels transformed the remaining metres into a marathon.
Don’t trip. Don’t trip. Don’t trip.
She made it past stair number one. Only four more to go. Don’t trip.
The toe of her borrowed Armani sandal caught on the second step and she pictured Shazz’s cringe as she pitched forward, her protect-those-shoes-with-your-life speech forever engraved in her mind.
This excerpt from Murder Most Unusual shows Stacey on her walk up to the stage to receive her RuBY Award. We are deep in her point of view, and get a sense of her character while being shown how she talks herself through her nerves.
Tell: I haven’t got a ‘tell’ example for this next one, but I wanted to show you the power of a thought, no matter how small, and how it can reveal past events and their impact on a character.
‘Your hair may have lost the red, but your temper hasn’t. So tell me, is it really true what they say about blondes?’
She stared at the monitor. The time when Chase and his wisecracks had seemed charming was long past.
He’s not Liam.
She knew that. Knew this situation was nothing like before. But reason wouldn’t curb her dread. She’d dodged the aftermath once. Unlikely she’d dodge it a second time round.
What do we discover here? We know Jayda’s hair is normally red, but when she’s in her undercover disguise, it’s blonde. We get a sense of her working relationship with Chase, and we discover there was a man in her past – Liam. He was a wiseass – someone Chase reminds her of – and his actions (whatever they were at the time) left her emotionally in tatters and wanting to avoid any hint of a similar situation.
Tell: I haven’t got a ‘tell’ example for this one either, but here it is.
Show: Jayda blinked. Her reflection blinked back. Sleek blonde hair. Blue eyes. When she squinted and tipped her head to the side, she could almost believe she was Bec’s real rather than adopted sister.
In this excerpt from Lethal in Love, we see Jayda assessing her new disguised appearance, reflecting on how for the first time in her life she looks like her adoptive family. And of course, we get a sense of her backstory – her adoption and how she’s always felt like she didn’t quite fit in.
If you look back over these examples, one glaring fact stands out – showing tends to be lengthier and can slow the pace of your story. However, if these incidents reveal information essential to the plot and/or development of a character, they will hold more weight and will be more likely to engage your audience.
It is possible to offset these ‘indirect’ or ‘showing’ moments with shorter, more ‘direct’ or ‘telling’ moments. By doing this, your story will be more balanced and will carry the reader along, riveted, until the very last word.
And so ends my analysis of characterisation ‘show, don’t tell.’
Thanks to those who read and commented on my previous posts – either directly on the blog post or on the social media mentions.
And now, it’s appreciation time once again! As a thank you for reading and supporting this post, I’d like to offer one lucky commenter a critique of three hundred words of their current work in progress, with particular emphasis on characterisation ‘show, don’t tell’.
To enter the draw, comment below and share what particular point or points in this post resonated with you. Or, give us all insight into how you incorporate ‘show, don’t tell’ into characterisation when you are writing.
A name will be drawn a week from now, on Wednesday 18th March, by 5pm DST and winners will be notified on the blog, so keep your eyes and ears peeled 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by.
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