Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Conveying Character

One little correction to yesterday's post: the author Kim Newman I mentioned is a "he" not a "she." I should have noticed that they used masculine pronouns in the intro to the story, but then he handled a female POV character well enough that I never got that "man writing from woman's point of view" vibe.

I've been talking about character development for a while -- about figuring out who these people are from the inside out. But all that planning and thinking doesn't do any good until you put it into the story, and that's where things get tricky. "Show, don't tell" is one of those writing mantras that gets repeated a lot, and characterization is one of the main areas where it applies. You can't tell readers that a character is brave, kind, impatient, evil, curious, etc. You have to show it through the character's actions.

A brave character will take on the school bully on the playground, will volunteer for the dangerous mission, will stand up to the boss, will eat the strange foreign food that makes everyone else at the table queasy. A kind character will do nice things for people and notice when people may be in need of help. A curious character will ask questions and investigate and won't be brushed aside with partial answers. You get the idea.

But it's not just big actions that show who a character is. You can also convey character traits through little mannerisms and body language. The impatient person is probably going to be a little fidgety, not sitting still, maybe pacing, and will interrupt or finish other people's sentences. A shy person blushes easily, may not make eye contact, won't initiate conversation and may maintain a larger than normal personal space bubble. The curious person may be nosy about everything, asking a lot of personal questions, picking up and looking at items, reading anything left lying around. The important thing about using mannerisms to convey character is that you have to be consistent and persistent, but you don't want to overdo it. Unless something happens to change the character, these actions should continue through the whole story, in every scene where they apply. It's way too easy to start the book really showing the character and then forget to carry these traits throughout. But then you don't want to go overboard with these actions so that the reader is shouting "I get it, okay?" It should almost be subliminal, where the reader just gets the impression you're trying to convey without noticing that you're trying to convey it.

It can help to make a list of actions and mannerisms that might convey the key aspects of your character. Then you'll be less likely to keep going to the same ones so many times that they become annoying. Your plot should also help convey character, since the choices the characters make will affect how the plot progresses (or else the plot turns will reveal character -- it's a chicken-and-egg thing). If your plot has your character choosing to take on the dangerous mission, you're showing that he's brave. If the plot has him going into hiding instead, then let's hope that "brave" isn't a character trait you're trying to convey.

One area where you may resort to "telling" is in the way other characters react to a character. Other people in the story may talk about this person, which means they're telling their impressions or attitudes (and the fact that they're telling these things is in turn an action on their parts that shows us something about their character). People are probably going to say nice things about a kind or brave person, and the fact that people like this person will help your reader see the kind of person he is.

If there's any conflict or contradiction between showing and telling, readers will believe the showing over the telling. No matter how often you tell us what a person is like, we're going to believe what the person actually does. This is often where the "Mary Sue" effect shows up, when the author overidentifies with a character to the point of losing all objectivity. In those cases, all the other characters will talk about how great this character is and this character will be universally loved -- and yet we never see the character doing anything that gives any reason for this universal appeal. We just see this bland, empty person that all the other characters tell us is great, and we don't believe the other characters.

However, you can use that show vs. tell conflict to effect if you do it deliberately. It can work if your character has a secret identity -- people treat Peter Parker or Clark Kent like they're useless wimps, but we see them acting like superheroes. Or it can work if the other characters just don't get this character, so they say he's one thing but we see through his actions that he's another way. Or you can use it to try to keep readers guessing. In a book I'm working on now, we hear about a character from the other characters before we meet her, and when we actually meet her, she's not at all what we expect based on the way others talk about her. But then once we start seeing her in action, we can kind of see why people see her that way, but we can also see that they're not getting the whole picture, and it takes a while for the viewpoint character to figure out what she's really like. Carrying that off requires a mix of showing and telling, with clashes and sometimes agreements between the showing and telling. But you have to do this on purpose for a reason. Otherwise, it just looks like you don't understand your own characters when there's a clash between the showing and telling.

This wraps up the series on characterization. I'm open to questions on other topics related to writing and the publishing business.

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