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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Characterization - Show, Don't Tell

I'm staring at this blank screen while I crunch popcorn covered with left-over nacho cheese sauce from my kids' New Year's Eve party, a party which was attended by 13 people under 21, and not a single adult besides my husband and me.

I suppose it could have been different with a little effort on my part. All it would have taken was some brain power directed at what I wanted instead of using up my energy making sure each of my children had at least one special friend coming and that the house was adequately stocked with junk food and a huge kettle of healthy soup. If I'd taken a moment to identify and invite a few friends, the evening might have included something for me other than staring at my husband as the roar of teenagers emanated from the basement and vacuuming silly string out of the carpet until almost 2 a.m.

Then again, while I'm no sacrificial saint, I don't really look back on that evening with regret. Instead I feel the glow that grew inside when my son, with his broadening on-the-brink-of manhood shoulders, put his arm around me and said, "Thanks, Mom."

So what does my little story have to do with characterization? Pause a moment and think through everything you've surmised about me from those paragraphs. What all did you learn? (I'd love to hear about it in the comment section!)

In case you didn't guess, the above paragraphs attempted to help you know my character by SHOWING.

I could have just told you like this:

I'm a forty-four year old married mom of four who was bored on New Year' Eve 'cause my children had a bunch of friends over, but I didn't. I take mothering, hospitality, and homemaking seriously. I could learn to think a little more about my own wants and needs, but overall I'm pretty content creating memories for my children.

Both scenarios say close to the same thing, but I'll bet you connected a lot more with me when you discovered who I was as the story unfolded than you did when I simply told you how I perceive myself. I'll bet in the first scenarios there was an unconscious decision about whether or not you and I could be friends. You probably just blazed through the second scenario, bored.

Showing who a character is mirrors real-life relationships. As humans we connect with new friends as we watch them. We get to know their strengths, their quirks, and how they respond to life. We don't make a new friend because she says, "Hi, I'm a mother and wife with blond hair, green eyes, and four children. You can trust me." We deepen our relationship with someone because we've grown to trust them a little more as we've observed how they interact with their world. We offer friendship as we get to know them. And while we may appreciate that twinkle in our friend's green eyes, we'd love her no matter her eye color.

It's the same with a good book. We choose to engage on an emotional level with our characters not because we're told they are tall, dark and handsome, or pert and clever, but because we see how they respond to life and draw our own conclusions about who they are. It's FUN to get to know someone new, whether on the page or in the room with you. If we looked at them and instantly knew everything about them, it would spoil the adventure of pursuing them and glimpsing their heart a piece at a time. When we write we should invite our readers to befriend our heroes and heroines by SHOWING who they are.

Back to our examples. Often it's the little details that draw us into a character's world. It doesn't really matter that I eat left-over nacho sauce, but don't I feel more real to you because you know that? When we read these little details we subconsciously plug the information into our perception of the person. For example, I must not be too stuffy if I'm cleaning out the left-over cheese sauce from the fridge. And it's pretty certain that I'm not lactose intolerant or a granola mom who never allows junk food.

Those little details also bring up subconscious questions. Maybe you're wondering how heavy I am if I sit around eating cheese sauce. And just how much junk food are my kids allowed? Am I irresponsible with food? Or was the cheese sauce just a party treat? Or maybe I'm fairly balanced. After all I DID have a kettle of homemade soup on the stove next to the chips and dip.

But why was there silly string on the carpet? Do I have no authority in my home so my kids buy a mess in a can and destroy my carpet? Or maybe I'm a fun, easy going personality who BOUGHT the stuff thinking a few minutes of giggling chaos is worth the 45 it took to clean it up. Isn't it contradictory that I would be relaxed enough to allow silly string on the carpet, but instead of going to bed and leaving the mess I'm vacuuming at 2 a.m.?

Unless you know me pretty well, you don't know the answer to these questions. That's why you come over for a cup of tea and watch me for a while--or keep reading that novel to unlock the mystery of that character.

Let's think about the two scenarios again. In the first I told how my son, on the brink of manhood, noticed my efforts and thanked me. That said a lot about who I am. It said there was relationship between me and my kids. You felt the aching pride I had in my boy who is crossing the line to adulthood. You heard his kind words and saw his affection.

In the second scenario you don't know much about that. You know I tried hard to serve my kids, but you don't know why. Is it because I love them, or because I have a strong sense of mom duty? Do my kids interact with me, or am I just the servant who keeps the chip bowl refilled? Have I waited on my kids hand and foot resulting in self-serving egocentric brats, or do the kids see and appreciate my efforts?

This aspect of our example brings up an important component of showing in character development. How our character interacts with others and how they treat him says more about who he is than if we simply TOLD the reader. I could have written, "I have a good relationship with my kids who are grateful for the things I do," but you wouldn't have experienced it. If you don't experience it, you're never really sure if you can believe it. You also miss out on the joy of the moment. Wasn't it sweet to picture that big kid hugging on me?

Next time you set out to develop a character for your novel, think about showing him to your reader. Let his personality unfold through his responses to life, little details about him, and his relationships with others. If you do, you'll help your reader make a new friend.

Oh, and if you're wondering what I'm going to do now that my nacho sauce is gone, I'm headed to the living room where I recently found silly string dried onto the light fixture.

A writer, speaker, and homeschooling mother of four, Paula Moldenhauer is passionate about God’s grace and intimacy with Jesus. Her website, Soul Scents, offers a free weekly devotional, and you can visit her blog at GraceReign. Paula serves as president of HIS Writers, the north Denver ACFW chapter. A devoted Pride and Prejudice fan, she loves good conversation, peppermint ice cream, and walking barefoot. Her greatest desire is to be close enough to Jesus to live His fragrance.


Kathy Kovach... said...

OOOH, can I play? You're a fun-loving mom who probably used as much silly string as the kids. At the very least, you stood and watched with a huge grin on yopur face and an escape route. Or is it cheating that I know you already? Great article!

Paula said...

Too funny, Kathy. Truth is Sarah bought the silly string and passed it out. She didn't have enough for everyone, so I didn't get my own can, but I did start the tradition by buying it myself a few years ago. LOL

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