All too often, novice writers make the mistake of telling us a character’s personality, as in Jane was sweet and elegant yet suffered from a penchant for dangerous adventures. Rather than tell her personality, the writer can more successfully raise reader interest by showing it – that is, inferring the character’s personality through a concrete detail. To wit, the Jane example above instead could be written by showing:
Wearing a blue and gold knee-length skirt with even hem lines and a tailored button-down shirt, Jane stood before a teary-eyed classmate. “What’s wrong, Melissa?” she said. I didn’t hear Melissa’s answer that was half-buried in sobs, but Jane’s frown told me it wasn’t good. “Is there something I could do to help?” Jane said, as she gently took Melissa’s arm. Guess now isn’t the time, I mumbled, to show off my cool new Cruzer Psyche shoes that Jane recommended when we went rock climbing Saturday.
Though longer than the exposition, this passage tells us through concrete detail a lot about Jane’s personality: she’s sweet (“What’s wrong, Melissa?” she said. … “Is there something I could do to help?” Jane said, as she gently took Melissa’s arm.); elegant (Wearing a blue and gold knee-length skirt with even hem lines and a tailored button-down shirt); and has a penchant for dangerous adventure (we went rock climbing Saturday).
Showing those details through dramatic action also nicely sets up conflict, a must in any story. There’s only a vague, shallow conflict when we read “Jane was sweet and elegant yet suffered from a penchant for dangerous adventures,” mainly that Jane has a couple of competing sides to her (though the notion that people who are elegant would eschew adventure feels like a stereotype). The showing example, however, suggests that conflict but really is about something deeper that all of us can relate to – the narrator obviously has feelings for Jane that goes beyond friendship and is hoping to impress her…but Jane’s positive personality traits (which he probably finds attractive) prevent him from being able to do so.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.