It’s easy – and therefore tempting – to describe your characters for the reader up front and just get it all over and done with. Resist the urge! This is a very common mistake, and to avoid it takes careful thinking and planning.
Too often, I read that so-and-so ‘always’ does this or that. It’s just not convincing. For instance, you might want to tell us that Leo is always polite and respectful, and that he always dresses formally (even at home). You could describe him that way, but we probably wouldn’t be convinced, or even interested. Instead, make Leo say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot and address people by their formal titles. Have him standing up whenever someone enters the room, opening doors for people, letting others go first into a lift. Have him straightening his tie, or brushing the cat hair off his suit jacket after he gets up from the lounge chair. Have his wife complaining that his suits need dry-cleaning too frequently because he doesn’t take them off when he gets home from work.
Does this advice sound familiar? It should; it’s a variation of tip #6: ‘Show, don’t tell’.
Here’s another example. Maybe you want us to know that Ruth has a short fuse. Don’t tell us up front that she’s hot-tempered; let her reveal those traits through her actions. Have her thump the bench when the kids are too loud, or swear at the traffic lights, or throw her purse across the room when she can’t find her credit card in it.
You get the idea, I hope. Letting your characters reveal themselves in this way brings them to life. When we meet a new person in real life, we don’t learn everything about them all at once; we get to know them gradually over time. Revealing your characters’ traits through their actions and dialogue allows the reader to get to know them bit by bit. It’s more interesting and more convincing.
And yes – it’s much, much harder. To do this successfully, first you have to observe real people and note how they reveal particular traits. What are some ways in which people show they’re angry? Or that they’re dreamers? Or that they’re anxious, or introverted, or kind? Then you have to think deeply about the characters you’re creating. Which of these traits do your characters have – and how might they display them? And then, rather than telling us your character is ‘always’ this or that, let them show us that characteristic in different ways throughout your manuscript. Your book will be much more profound and interesting for it.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.