To accompany my post on Thursday about character development, here are two posts with two different views on the subject. In Leah Meahl’s post on the Christ is Write blog, she offers different ways to get to know your characters from the inside out. Henry McLaughlin writes in his post on the Write Conversation how he did elaborate background work on his major characters, but let his secondary characters develop as he wrote.
So how do you like to develop characters? Are you a plotter — do you have to know everything about your character before you start your first draft? Or are you a pantser — writing by the seat of your pants, allowing the characters to grow with the story? Or do you have a combination of strategies?
… a sledding scene. For me, sledding is pure joy. It’s a simply activity that provides an astonishing amount of delight. I can’t be depressed if I’m sledding.
Here’s my description:
“As I climb the hill for the fifth time, the cold air is sharp in my lungs. But with a big grin, I reach the top. Squinting against the brilliant sun, I scan the slope, waiting for the other sledders to get out of the way at the bottom. I sit down on my sled, propelling myself with my hands. The snow crackles under my mittens. Smoke from a nearby fire lends the air a cozy smell. I build my speed and zip down the hill, snow flying as fast as the laughs of the sledders. Skidding into a field of weeds, I cover my face with my mittens. The sled grinds to halt. I breathe, staring at the a sky bluer than the sea. Then I’m on my feet, running up the hill.”
Do you ever feel like a casting director when it comes to finding characters? You know what kind of a character you need but just can’t make him or her work. When that happens to me, it may mean I haven’t developed the personality enough, but more often, it’s because I can’t see him or her in my head.
For major characters, I have to see them as clearly as I do my family. Then I can get under their skin and know their personalities and motivations like my own.
The physical appearances affects the character’s personality. If I can’t get that right, the character doesn’t work. I get the same feeling when I am watching a show and I don’t buy the character because the actor is miscast in the role. As author, I can’t make just any character work in any role.
In my YA novel, I knew I wanted Junior, my main character, to have a fifteen-year-old brother Merritt. Merritt needed to be optimistic and easy-going to contrast with Junior’s worry-prone, intellectual personality.
Originally, I imagined Merritt as slim, blond, with a sparse mustache, But with those looks, he kept changing into a nervous, eager-to-please character, like his cousin Gabe. I couldn’t have two characters with the same personality. But I couldn’t force Merritt to be what I wanted, either, even though he was imagined.
So I changed his appearance. Merritt is still fifteen and thin, but now he’s half-European, half-Native American with shaggy black hair and midnight blue eyes. And he behaves like an easy-going optimist. I also like his ethnic background because it reflects the melting pot culture of America.
Why this change works, I can’t say. But when other characters have been problems, it is often because I don’t have an appearance that jives with their personality. The two must mesh for me to write about him or her comfortably.
How do you cast the characters of your stories? Or what do you do with a character that won’t behave?
The two books shown above helped me tremendously in understanding “show, don’t tell”. They are easy to read, not expensive, and give detailed explanations about what “telling” prose is versus “showing” prose.
Janice Hardy’s book is the longer of the two, and the one I read first. Author and agent Tess Emily Hall recommended it. Ms. Hard cover many topics that come under “telling” prose — point of view (POV), narrative distance, backstory, info dump, and more.
What I found most helpful were lists of words that usually indicate a writer is engaging in “telling”. An appendix conveniently gathers all these word together.
Her chapter “Things That Affect Telling” takes the same paragraph and rewrites it in “showing” prose from first-person POV, third-person single POV, and third-person omniscient POV. She dissects the differences in the writing styles, and that kind of examination is what I really needed.
I found the chapter “Write Lively, Linear Prose” to be the most helpful. Sometimes, because writers know how all the action is going to end, they write it in the wrong order.
An example from Rivet:
“The hot, stuffy air caused my head to spin.”
If I was writing in deep POV, showing, not telling, I would describe first the character noticing something wrong with his head, then have the character pinpoint the cause. I am paying close attention to the order of my action, so I don’t put the cart before the horse.
What sources have you found that teach “show, don’t tell”?
Snow day! What kid in a public school hasn’t been thrilled to hear these two words?
We always know at the second ring if the school is delayed or cancelled. The school uses a programs that calls all the devices parents’ register. So when all the phones are singing and ringing like an orchestra, my kids know it’s good news.
What are snow days like fore you? Or what is your favoriting snow day memory?
If this prompt inspires you, please share some of that inspiration below!
If you’ve been writing for more than a week, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the advice “show, don’t tell”. I’d heard it so much, it had lost almost any meaning. I only understood it to mean “be descriptive”. But at the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in Cincinnati, I learned what agents and publishers actually expect.
In her session on the subject, Tessa Emily Hall said that “show, don’t tell” means I can only write what the point-of-view (POV ) character experiences or thinks in that precise instance in the story. I call it virtual-reality POV. The writer is limited to what the POV character can take in through his or her senses and his or her knowledge and thoughts at the “present” moment.
If you write in first-person POV or third-person POV from a single character per chapter, this concept makes sense. If you use third POV, omniscient, I am not sure how this works.
Once I grasped the concept, I realized why it has been so hard for me to master.
The Friendly Narrator
My favorite stories, from Dr. Watson to Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders are told in first-person POV, but the story is related as a past event.
For example, Dr. Watson often begins a story by describing how he’s been reviewing his notes of his recent adventures with Sherlock Holmes and has decided to describe in detail this particular tale.
Readers discover at the end of The Outsiders that the novel is Ponyboy’s English assignment, so he comments on the story with hindsight. Archie Goodwin often finishes a Nero Wolfe story by stating that a few days ago, the verdict came in on the case they solved.
This style makes me feel like the narrator is a friend I am sitting down with for a private chat. I also love how the style lets the narrator directly address the reader.
From Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout:
Nero Wolfe is investigating cases of plagiarism and realizes all three cases are the work of one person because of how the copycat uses paragraphs. His right-hand man Archie Goodwin says, at the end of a long paragraph: “The next sentence is to be, ‘But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,’ and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.”
From The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:
Ponyboy Curtis, who is called a greaser because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, says, “Incidentally, we don’t mind being called greaser by another greaser. It’s kind of playful then.”
From “The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan:
“If ever you see a man put his fingers in his ears and whistle Dixie to keep from hearing the truth, you may assume he’s a fool, but if he put his fingers in your ears and starts whistling, then you know you are dealing with a journalist.”
This was the style I was using in my novel. My main character Junior was telling the story as if it was something that happened in the recent past. Writers can still use this style — Mr. Klavan wrote his story in 2007 — but in YA, it seems like not only are more stories written in first-person POV, but also in present tense. You can’t get more immediate and in the moment than that.
So I have been reviewing my manuscript under a microscope, seeing if I can master this technique. In my next tip, I’ll recommend two books that have helped me understand all the intricacies of”show, don’t tell.”
This post has been almost four months in the making, and now I think is the right time to publish it because I finally have a conclusion.
In September, I went to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas with high hopes. I had spend the past year building my platform and revising my YA novel with the help of a freelance editor. When an agent wanted to take my business plan and first three chapter, my confidence soared.
Four days later, the agent e-mailed me, stating my writing had problems, mainly in the area of “show, don’t tell”. I couldn’t understand it. My editor had pointed out those areas, and I thought I had fixed them.
The next few weeks, my mind was a tornado of questions and doubts. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough to be a published writer. Maybe I should just write for my own enjoyment. Perhaps I was too old to master a new writing style. To say I was depressed is like saying the Arctic is brisk.
And then I noticed something. Even while I was questing my talent as a writer, I was still thinking like one. I’d see an unusual sunset and file it away until I could find story to accompany it. Someone would make a joke, and I would wonder which of my characters to give it to.
I finally realized that regardless of whether I ever got published, I was a writer. I enjoyed the art too much, and my brain seemed designed for it. I had to be a writer. God made me that way.
Six weeks after the conference in Dallas, I went to one in Cincinnati. I was in no mood to go, but since I had already paid, I went.
Sponsored by Serious Writer Academy, it was the best writing conference I ever attended. Since it was small, I had many opportunities to take to attendees and instructors. Author and agent Tessa Emily Hall taught a class on “show, don’t tell”, and I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Now I had to figure out if I could actually implement what I had learned.
In my next post, I will discuss what I discovered was my key to understanding “show, don’t tell”.