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29 September 2021

How to show character

by Anna Davis How To ..., Writing Tips

When it comes to planning and building the central characters for your fiction, you’re likely to do copious work to really get to know them – possibly constructing detailed character profiles exploring their lifestyle, personality, psychology, backstory and more. But none of that very good work will add up to much unless you can effectively convey who your character is to the reader – in other words, you need to put your character on the page right from the moment you introduce them. Here are some tips for this:

Showing versus telling

Writers often think they have to introduce each character with a physical description and potted history before they set them in motion. But this slows the story down, and the character doesn’t usually stick in the reader’s mind. Readers like to meet characters as they are doing something or saying something that shows who they are – and with this action forming a part of the story. Rather than saying that Catherine is chaotic and disorganised, lurching haphazardly through her day-to-day life, and that this means she often messes up as a parent – why not show these qualities in action? Perhaps she’s in the hairdresser’s chair, halfway through a haircut, when she gets a phone-call from her six-year-old child’s teacher, saying, ‘It’s a half-day. You should have been here to pick up an hour ago’. She rushes out into the street (with only half her hair cut) to find her car clamped because she hasn’t paid the tax ..

I’m not saying you should never use description – but if you practise economy in your way of writing; if you introduce your character early and move them straight into the story as they arrive on the page – your reader will be all the happier for it. Readers like to work, and to build their own ideas about your character.

Your character’s world

We build our world in our own image – and all the personal and lifestyle choices we make show something about who we are: The place we live, the furniture we put in it – whether the rooms are cluttered or clear, dusty or clean. What’s in your protagonist’s wardrobe? What’s stored away in the attic? Take care to construct your character’s environments – home, work, the interior of a car – in ways that will show something more to the reader.

Physical details that say something more

Physical details can tell us a lot about a character. If I were to take hold of your character’s hand, what would I notice about it? Are their hands soft, calloused from manual work or cracked and flaking with eczema? Are their nails bitten down, dirty from gardening, or perfectly manicured and painted a delicate pink?

Routines, gestures and mannerisms

We all have our own way of doing things – even the very routine things in our lives – like making breakfast, or brushing our hair. Sharpen the mundane actions in your fiction to smuggle across information about your character.

Every gesture your character makes offers an opportunity to convey their personality and get vital information across to the reader – every habit, every twitch: The way someone avoids the cracks in the pavements; the way they eat a chocolate bar; the way the ends of their sentences turn upward, like a question.

Dialogue

What better way to show us a character than to give them their own individual voice? Think about the vocabulary they’d use; consider whether they’re shy and monosyllabic or, on the other hand, whether they dominate the conversation. And remember that what’s not said is as important as what is said.

Check out this blog for more tips on how to write dialogue that really zings off the page.

Interiority

And finally, you can usefully help the reader to get to know your protagonist by giving us access to their thoughts, feelings and reflections. This gives you the opportunity to show your character’s take on the events and people you’re writing about, adding another dimension to your story and letting us sit on your character’s shoulder – or, in the case of first person narration, allows us to see everything through their eyes. Take time, though, to get the balance right – too much interiority can slow down the story and make the reader feel they’re being told too much.

To explore in much greater depth how to develop compelling characters and put them on the page to best effect, how about joining our new four-week Character DevelopmentThe Deep Dive online course? Featuring teaching videos written and presented by me – with discussion and work-sharing with a group of fellow students on our online Learning platform – plus feedback on one of your writing tasks from an expert editor (a published author with teaching experience) and the chance to purchase a report on your work and a one-to-one tutorial. This course runs for the first time from 21 October to 2 December – and it’s the first in a new series of ‘Deep Dive’ courses, which will explore some of the most important aspects of writing fiction.

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