Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality

Let’s begin part two of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Today, we’re going to talk about how showing and telling relate to characterization.

Characters play an important role in your book. Most of the time, the reader is more attached to the characters than anything else in the story. As a writer, one of your goals is to develop great characters so the readers will feel a connection with them. The best books have developed, fleshed out, and complex characters that readers connect with. These characters feel so real that they jump off the pages. They have needs, wants, fears, flaws, and most importantly, a personality.

So how do you show your characters’ personalities?

By showing.

In my introduction, I said showing creates mental images for the reader. When we show a character’s personality, we see images of that character and start to feel a connection. In theater, television, and film, actors never have to tell us what their characters are like. They show what they’re like by acting out the role.

Remember in my last post I said showing was like “evidence”? It’s not enough to say, “Suzy was a smart girl.” You have to prove it. You have to show if you want your characters to come alive. Telling leads to poorly written characters who are underdeveloped, flat, and forgettable.

Let’s begin with our first example:
Example 1: “Suzy was a smart girl.”

This sentence is flat and uninteresting, and I’m not feeling a connection with this character. She doesn’t feel real to me.

Example 2: “Suzy aced all of her honors and AP courses, won first place in ten science fairs and three essay contests, and led the debate team to the state championship.”

Wow, that second example is much more engaging than the first one, and it shows more of who Suzy is. I start to feel that she could be a real person. It also showed more aspects of her personality than just her intelligence. Acing her classes shows she is a hard worker. Winning science fairs and essay contests shows she is talented. Leading her debate team shows she can be a leader.

All humans are complex. When you can show your character’s main personality and the other aspects to it, you’ll have a much more interesting character.

 

How Will This Work for a Scene?
Where new writers really struggle with showing is when they’re writing scenes. Usually, I will see a new writer write something like this:

Suzy was the smartest girl in her junior class. She arrived five minutes early to her calculus honors class and sat in the front row so she wouldn’t miss any Mr. Jones’ notes. She liked to believe that she was his favorite student. Her teacher came in. Suzy pointed out a mistake in the homework. After Mr. Jones looked at it, he told her that she was right.

The telling causes distance between Suzy and the reader. I don’t have a hint of what Suzy’s personality besides the fact that she’s smart.

Showing in a scene will look something like this:

Suzy walked into her calculus honors class and took her seat in the front row. She pulled out her books and set them on one corner of her desk before digging out her homework. Now settled, she opened her textbook to next week’s lesson.

“Good morning, Suzy,” Mr. Jones said as he entered the classroom. “Early again, I see.”

“Yep, you always say the greatest people arrive early,” Suzy said.

Her teacher chuckled. “Of course. Man, I wished my students would quote me more.”

That’s why I’m your favorite, Suzy thought.

“I also wanted to show you an error in the homework.” With a finger, she turned her homework around. “If you look at question nine, you can see why you get an indefinite answer. These numbers cancel each other out, and these numbers don’t add up correctly here. I looked up the answer in the back of the book, and I tried solving the problem backwards, but it doesn’t add up to the original equation.”

Mr. Jones stared at the problem for a minute before pulling out his pen and solving the problem himself. Suzy ripped a page out of her notebook and redid the problem too.

“See, the issue starts here,” she said.

Mr. Jones raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. Nice catch there.”

In this example, there is more personality shining through. Yes, this one was longer, but it was also better. Showing requires more effort and creative juices. Here, I used a few tools to show Suzy’s personality:

1. Action
Last post, I said action verbs will help you show. In the second example, I used action to show her personality. I had her read next week’s lesson and redo the math problem. Her taking a seat in the front row also shows she is very interested in learning. These actions show that she is smart. I never had to say that she was. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

2. Interaction
Another tool to show personality is having the characters interact with each other. In real life, our personalities bounce off each other. The same is true for characters. In this example, Suzy’s interacting with her teacher and pointing out the error in the homework to him shows she’s smart.

3. Thoughts and Dialogue:
In the first example, it says that Suzy liked to believe that she was her teacher’s favorite student. In the second example, I used Suzy’s thoughts to show that’s what she believed. Characters’ thoughts reveals a lot about themselves. Dialogue is also another great tool to show personality. Just like characters’ thoughts, their own words say a lot about their personality. I’ll devote a post about dialogue later.

 

If you’re a new writer, don’t let this scare you. The more you practice, the more showing will come naturally. If you’re struggling with showing, read some books to see how other authors show. You can also watch a few movies and takes notes on how the actors act and how characters come alive on the screen.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

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