Michelle Boyajian speak on characterization at a recent event. An energetic speaker, Michelle never fails to deliver enthusiasm packed with wisdom whenever she speaks about writing. (We were in graduate school together.)
The author of Lies of the Heart, Michelle discussed how we maneuver in real life and how that should be reflected in how our characters develop in our fiction. It was one of the best definitions I had heard for show-don't-tell. For some writers, "showing" means pages upon pages "this happened and then this happened and that's why he does what he does."
Trying to explain show-don't-tell often turns into a strange discussion because when a writer describes what happened, isn't that showing? That's why Michelle's working definition rang so true. (Hopefully I am able to do it justice...here it goes!)
We all have them. Friend A and acquaintance B. One day, friend A complains that acquaintance B is too full of herself. (Raise your hand if you've been at least on the listening end of that kind of conversation. Wow, that many?! Okay, now put your hand down.)
But, you, the discerning, watchful writer want to meet B again to make your own impression. Maybe A was jilted by B's brother or B bought the last scoop of A's favorite ice cream. So, you want to see B's actions and interactions unfold before your eyes so that you can decide on your own if B really is conceited and snooty or if she is just shy. And you also want to be able to see how A acts in relation to B so that you become more informed about her motivations. You don't want someone to summarize the action in exposition.
Your readers also want the action. They want you to show the bits and pieces of a character that come together to make that person who she is. You, as a reader, like to establish your own idea of who someone is and not rely on what someone else may say.
When you write characterizations, how do you tap into your character's motivations? How do you make your characters tick?
Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living in Wilmington, NC. Her piece "Running on Heart" is in the September 2011 issue of The Writer.
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