Aspects of Character Part 5: Showing Versus Telling (as usual)


In the four previous posts, I described how to develop a character through how they look, what they fear, what they like and dislike, how they feel, what they believe, the way they treat others, and through change. But when it comes right down to it, the nitty-gritty of a short story or novel is the plot, which goes from one point to another through the things a character does and says. The doing and saying of a story essentially is the story. You can have doing and saying all over the place, and it would be a story, even if the characters were hardly developed at all. Obviously, though, this would not be a very good story, and this is why we as writers must bring to life a character on the page. The doing and saying of a story is provided by the deepest aspects of the characters participating in the story.

The old adage “show, don’t tell” has been the go-to rule for writers, as it should be. Telling is describing the character, describing the setting, narrating the plot development as if the reader needs to have their hand held as they plow through a novel. Obviously some telling is required, or else the story may be a bit difficult to follow, but here’s something all writer’s need to know: readers are smarter than you think. Telling is not doing and saying, it is describing. Showing is doing and saying. Readers do not what to be told what is happening, they want to see it before their eyes.

The way a reader reads is completely the opposite of how a writer writes, but a writer must know how a reader reads in order to write the thing that will make the most sense to them. How a reader reads is like this: the doing and saying of the plot reveals what the character is like on a deeper level. Therefore, a writer must write like this: what the character is like on a deeper level dictates the doing and saying of the plot.

Most readers don’t read for an analysis of a character, they read to be entertained by the plot, by the doing and saying; it is while they are enjoying the story that they can decipher the words and discover the intricacies of human nature  through the character. They don’t want to be told that people are selfish; they want to see what happens in a situation where people act in selfish ways and say selfish things. A writer must know that a character is selfish in order to write the doing and saying of selfishness, but to a reader, the doing and saying will reveal the selfishness of the character.

To sum up: a writer must show the actions of a character so that a reader can be both entertained by the plot and be sneakily revealed the innards of the character. If a writer knows the character down to the deepest, basest emotions, desires, and fears, then they can portray the character in such a way that the reader can see what they are like without being told that that’s what they’re like. “Show, don’t tell” is the most important guideline for writers to follow.

Peace, Aimee