Six impossible things

Getting Them Across

Characters are fundamental to nearly all stories. Whatever happens, happens to somebody or is made to happen by somebody, or both. Even when the characters in a story are not human, as in Watership Down, they tend to be anthropomophized. Most readers remember appealing and interesting characters more often than fascinating plot twists, and the people who populate stories are often identified with them to such an extent that they’re the first thing people mention when they start to talk about a book.

It should therefore be obvious to anyone who wants to write that portraying fascinating and appealing characters is a skill that is vital for any author to develop.

There is, however, a difference between thinking up an interesting and appealing character, and capturing that interest and appeal on the page in a way that will get it across to readers. A large part of the difficulty in doing this comes from the fact that practically everyone trusts their own judgment more than they trust anyone else’s – and that means that nearly all readers will trust their own assessment of a character more than the writer’s.

This is the reason behind the oft-quoted advice to “show, don’t tell.” If you assure the reader that George is trustworthy and loyal, but the first thing readers see him doing is discussing the size of the bribe he’s going to get for voting the way Sue wants him to vote in the board meeting, the readers are highly unlikely to believe that the writer is telling the truth. They base their assessment of the character on what they see him doing and saying, and they trust that assessment more than the writer’s repeated assurances that no, George really is loyal and trustworthy. And readers are going to have plenty of things to judge the characters on, because I don’t think it is possible to get through an entire novel without “showing” the characters doing or saying something.

Authors show off their characters’ personalities and affect the way readers judge them in different ways:

  • Through what the characters say and how they say it
  • By what they do and how they do it
  • In their feelings, reactions, and motivation
  • Through what characters say about each other
  • Through the way the characters react to each other
  • Through the context in which the characters are saying and doing things

What the characters say and how covers everything from the topics the character chooses to comment on to his/her tone of voice, attitude, and body language. If, for instance, George says “So, how much are you offering for me to vote your way in the board meeting?” in a sarcastic tone, or one that’s obviously joking or otherwise indicates that he’s not seriously considering taking a bribe, the readers will probably withhold judgment for a while until they find out what he really does.

What they do and how they do it means the kinds of actions they take. If George’s conversation with Sue ends in him picking up a suitcase full of money and walking off with it, it doesn’t matter how sarcastic or jokey he sounded in the conversation: he’s just taken a bribe, and readers are not going to see him as trustworthy and loyal.

Feelings, reactions, and motivations are the reasons why someone does things. If George is the viewpoint character, so that the writer can provide his thoughts and feelings, the reader can be made aware that George is actually an undercover agent attempting to ferret out corruption, and that even so he finds “taking a bribe” distasteful. If George is not the viewpoint character, the writer has to work with the viewpoint character’s interpretation of George’s expression, tone of voice, body language, and whatever the POV already knows of George’s character and motivations. This makes it really hard to get across the fact that George is actually a good guy, even though he appears to be taking a bribe; it usually can’t be done clearly and with certainty, but the writer can often get in enough hints that it will be obvious on a second reading when the reader has more context and background.

What characters say about each other covers everything from flat-out gossip to earnest discussion about someone’s character. The things characters say about each other are a little more complicated. If Jane is a likeable good guy character, and Jane says “I don’t believe George would ever take a bribe,” then the readers are somewhat inclined to think there might be something else going on and maybe George really is a good guy, even if they just read about him taking a bribe, but they’re also somewhat inclined to think that Jane sees the world through rose-colored glasses. On the other hand, if we dislike Sue and she finishes her conversation with George by telling him admiringly, “And I always thought you were such a goody-two-shoes,” we’re actually more inclined to think that maybe there’s something odd going on, because we want her to be wrong about her change in her judgment of George. If George turns out to be dishonest after all, it’s going to affect the reader’s opinion of Jane and Sue and their judgment.

The way characters react to each other means everything from physical reactions to emotional ones. Again, this reflects on both of the characters involved. If we like Jane, and Jane smiles and hugs George in greeting, we’re inclined to think either better of him or worse of Jane’s judgment. If George’s response to the hug is a little strained, we’re again inclined to think there’s more going on than meets the eye; if he brushes her off and ignores her hurt expression, we’re back to thinking he’s really a bad guy.

The context in which the characters operate has to do with background and backstory that the reader may or may not know…yet. If the chapter opens with a scene in which George gets his undercover assignment, and then we see him taking Sue’s bribe, the context is different because we know the background. Writers can get a lot of mileage out of “deep background” – an ambiguous character’s mysterious, angsty past – but only if they let the reader know via some of the other avenues that there is an unknown context still to be revealed.

All of these things feed into the reader’s judgment of each and every character, whether the writer is paying close attention to them or not. Writers who pay close attention, however, have the chance of aiming the reader’s judgment in the direction they want…which can and usually does completely eliminate the need to tell the reader “George was honest, trustworthy, and loyal.”

6 Comments
  1. when telling the readers, if necessary, it’s better to describe their habitual actions than their traits in the abstract. The Phantom Tollbooth opens by telling us that “There once was a boy named Milo who did not know what to do with himself — not just some of the time, but always.” Persuasion opens with Sir Walter’s habit of reading the Baronetage.

    and when showing, the first act a reader sees the character commit is probably going to be the gold standards and all acts as divergences from it, or corroboration of it.

  2. I read a book that started out “Josh was not usually the type of kid who would break in and steal things.” And the first thing he did was crawl through a hole into a gated community, dodge the guards, and steal a football. He got into the situation by lying about having the football in the first place.

    As the book goes on, he lies about other things, steals other things, and breaks into the community again (the hole had been filled and he dug it out). He’s the POV character and I could tell the author wanted me to like him, but I didn’t. I finished the book, hoping things would improve. They didn’t.

    Needless to say, I won’t be reading anything else by that author.

  3. As a writer, we need our audience to trust us, and what you’ve described is a great foundation for building characters and getting our readers to go along for the ride 🙂

  4. I find that I can tolerate less than nice protagonists in books so long as they’re not stupid. I’m not certain what authors do to get that reaction and should probably pay better attention.

    Not too long ago I read an Historical romance that did the opposite of tell me that the character was good and then have him do bad things. I was told that he was angry and everyone thought him heartless and then he proceeded, in every single moment, to be a sweetheart teddybear. And then, also, after the first description, everyone only said things about him about how nice he was and brought up every unlikely modern sensibility that he had, including expecting his daughter to make up her own mind about everything in a fashion that was beyond most parents even today. (I didn’t throw my Nook at the wall.)

  5. So is George good or bad?

    It must be bad. You see, the author keeps waffling about it. There must be something going on.

    Point well made, madam!

  6. For every scene, I answer the prompt: How does the reader feel about this scene?

    Then I make sure the reader has very good reasons to feel that way.

    It’s a good counterpart to What does the POV character go through emotionally in this scene? (those emotions also have to be motivated).

    Then I include the minimum required amount to make those things obvious.

    Because the purpose of fiction is to elicit emotion in the reader, give them the experience virtually and safely.

    It is a trick to keep motivating what you want to happen, right there on the page, and not too far back in the book, either.

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