How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 2

I loved to read first-person stories. That’s why I write stories in first-person. But that leads to the tricky problem of how to describe the main character (MC) in show don’t tell. Here’s one thing not to do:

Don’t Use a Mirror!

A lot of first-time writers make this mistake. I did when I tackled my first novel at eighteen. The technique I used was to have my MC stop by a mirror and remark on his looks.

This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it’s been done to death. Second, it can feel bolted on to the story, as out of place in the narrative as sideview mirrors on a stroller. Third, it will slow or stall the narrative. For my readers to get a picture of my main character early in the story, I’d have to have her stop by the mirror just when I want them caught up in the action.

So forget the mirror.

Slip in the MC’s Description Naturally

In my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, the first scene is set in an abandoned children’s home, and my MC is alone. But I needed to give some clues to readers about who this person is. So in the second paragraph, I wrote “my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill.” Now readers know they are most likely dealing with a female.

After five hundred words, I switch scenes. My MC is working in a library and chatting with her boss. The first sentence is a line of dialogue “Is this yours, Rae?”. The female spelling of her first name confirms it’s a woman. Then I worked in a reference to her age and deposited a clue to the mystery at the same time.

Speaking to Rae: Barb glanced at [a smart phone]. “You were looking up the Ohio Revised Code?” Her eyebrows lifted above her bright red glasses. “When I was nineteen, the closest I got to reading the law was legal thrillers.”

I had to wait for the next scene to get in a more detailed description of Rae. I would have liked to put it in earlier, but it didn’t seem natural. In the next scene, Rae is chatting with Jason Carlisle, one of the men who might be her father. He is also a member of the library board and reminds Rae that she can bring a date to the staff Christmas party. Rae says she hasn’t been in town long enough to interest any guy. Jason says he’s surprised the guys haven’t found her. This gives Rae a chance to reflect on her looks.

“He was just being nice. At 5’11”, my height works against me when it comes to attracting guys. That and my face. My eyes are okay–dark chocolate brown with a slight tilt–but my face is too bony, all cheekbones and chin.

Now I’ve given readers enough information to imagine Rae.

How to Show Don’t Tell Ages of Characters

This is another tricky problem. Since my story is concerned with a nineteen-year-old looking for her father, I felt it was important to mention ages of people who might be her relatives. It helped readers see the characters and established relationships between characters. Here are two ways I showed and didn’t tell characters’ ages.

Slip it into dialogue

I used dialogue to reveal Rae’s age. In another scene, Rae is eating lunch with the sheriff, who is another candidate to be her father, and his family. His age comes out in a conversation with his mother. Discussing the time twenty years before when Rae’s mother was pregnant with her and disappeared from the county, the sheriff’s mother says to her son:

“At the time, all you thought about was going to college to play football. And everything else a senior has to deal with.”

Slip it into MC’s thoughts

When I introduced the characters of Jason Carlisle, I had Rae think:

“My gaze traveled up to the black sweater with a subtle swirling pattern and the million-watt smile of Jason Carlisle. That smile made him look a lot younger than thirty-seven.

But sometimes, you have to tell

If the age was important, and I couldn’t think of a better way to let readers know, I flat-out stated it. I dropped in the age and moved on.

“His six-year-old son was nowhere to be seen …”

“Mrs. M. swatted at the first-grader …”

These observations are still in the mind of my MC, so it might qualify as shown, but these aren’t as well-woven into the story as my other examples.

Okay, your turn. How do you show readers what your main character looks like? What’s a great example of how to describe characters in show don’t tell?

I’m So Excited!

The reason I’m so excited is that I am a finalist in the Anthology category for the Selah Awards! Blue Ridge Christian Writers gives these awards at their conference in May. I hadn’t realized they announced finalists, so I wasn’t expecting to hear any news until the awards ceremony.

I entered my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” from Christmas fiction off the beaten path. A huge thank-you to the publishers of Mt. Zion Ridge Press, Tamera Lynn Kraft and Michelle Levigne for accepting my story and being so enthusiastic about it. Another huge thank-you to editor Jenna Kraft for giving me so much good advice.

It may be a cliche to say that it’s a thrill to be nominated, but I am very happy with fulfilling that cliche!

Writing Tip — Holiday Folklore as Writing Inspiration

christmas-w3797415_1280If you want to combine Christmas or New Year’s Day with speculative fiction, or to give any story a touch of magic or wonder, researching the folklore surrounding the holidays may provide the spark you need to ignite a story.

Many, many superstitions are attached to these holidays at the end of the year. This is probably because Europeans held on to some pagan beliefs as they converted on Christianity. In Celtic lands, the winter solstice was a time to be on guard against evil spirits, who were said to roam the long nights. Ancient Celts lit bonfires and made noise to scare them away. (Side note: Celts also believed evil spirits were out and about during the fall celebration of Samhain, the holiday from which Halloween derives its origin. I get the impression that it was no picnic to be ancient Celt.)

This fear of evil spirits may have led to the English tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I believe that may have influence Charles Dicken’s decision to use ghosts to haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump (the link is to a newer edition than I have) lists many superstitions from various countries. Here are a few.

“A child born a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will have good fortune.”

“A child born during the twelve nights of Christmas may become a werewolf. (Germany and Poland)”

“From cockcrow until dawn on Christmas Day, trolls roam the land. (Sweden)”

“A windy Christmas Day brings good luck.” Our Christmas Eve was foggy from dawn until Christmas morning. I have not idea what that means.

In my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I refer to the Christmas legend. Early Christmas morning, under an almost full moon in the clear, frozen dark, Rae Riley confronts the three men who are the only candidates to be her father and her mother’s attacker. The moon gilds everything, giving the land and everyone under it a magical appearance. Rae says she believes animals could speak on a night like this.

I couldn’t find a country of origin for the legend, but it states that because the animals in the stable were kind of Jesus at his birth, he granted them the ability to speak at midnight on every Christmas Day since them. I use the legend to underline the wonder Rae feels when she solves the mystery of her mother’s attack and her father’s identity.

A lot of superstitions deal with performing rituals to predict the future.

“On Christmas Eve, if an unmarried woman peels an apple, making sure it remains as a single ribbon, and if she throws it on the floor from above her head, the pattern of the peeling on the floor will disclose her future husband’s initials.”

What if a young woman performs this ritual and doesn’t like the initials she sees because she knows to whom they belong? Or what if such rituals are accurate but can only be performed by trained fortune tellers? In this world, the best fortune tellers run businesses and customers scramble to make appointments with them for New Year’s Eve and Day.

Another way to insure good luck for the coming year was to get the right person to enter the home after midnight on New Year’s Eve. This custom, called first-footing, was popular in Scotland and northern England. A powerful man with dark hair brought the best luck. Agatha Christie uses this superstition to help solve a ten-year-old death in the short story, “The Coming of Mr. Quin” in the book The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Do you know of any holiday folklore in your community?

Writing Tip — Christmas Music as Writing Inspiration

pianow-3775191_1280-2My kids and I have broken out our collection of Christmas music and listen to it whenever we are in the car in December. I have a firm rule that we don’t listen to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving and we quit after New Year’s Day. So we need to cram in a lot of music in five weeks.

My kids have very different tastes in music. My oldest likes instrumental pieces almost to the exclusion of songs. My youngest finds music without lyrics boring. They agree on a few musical items. Slow tempo = bad. Fast tempo = usually good. Both of them like songs that tell a story, and they both like instrumental pieces by the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

When I drive my oldest to school, and we listen to  orchestral arrangements, my imagination thinks of the music as a soundtrack and tries to create a scene that suits it. One of our favorites is the piece by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24“. I always imagine some kind of fight scene to go with it. Another favorite is a fast-paced version of “God Read Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Mannheim Steamroller.

Songs also ignite my creative fire. The short story, “Mary, Did You Know”in Christmas fiction off the beaten path reminded me of this. This song inspired author Patricia Meredith to write a story about Mary’s first years as a parent of Jesus. She isn’t the only writer to find inspirations in Christmas songs.

Flipping through The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, I find movies or TV shows inspired by “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, and “Good King Wenceslas”, which is a movie depicting a fictional version of the life of Vaclav the Good, who ruled Bohemia from 922-929.

I’ve always wanted to write a speculative fiction story, set in modern times, based on the verses of “Good King Wencelas”. I tried to write it as a flash fiction piece but couldn’t make it short enough and still produce a satisfying narrative. Maybe I should just write it out as long as I need to and then see if I can cut it down.

How does Christmas music as writing inspiration spark your imagination?

Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Ronnell Kay Gibson

GIBSONTo wrap up the month, I have author Ronnell Kay Gibson visiting for the first time. Although she has published many devotionals and short stories, “Those Who Stay” is her first story to appear in an anthology. Glad to have you here, Ronnell!

What inspired you to write “Those Who Stayed”, a drama set during a hostage crisis in a store?

“Those Who Stayed” was based on a dream I about just that, a gunman who walked into my local Christian bookstore and posed the same ultimatum, deny Jesus and you can live, but those who stay will be shot. In the dream, I was the 17-year-old boy frozen in place watching the events unfold. All the other details and characters were created as I wrote the story.

 Why did you choose a teenage boy as your main character?

I write a lot of young adult fiction and as I was writing, it just felt the most natural.

 Did you find any special challenges when you wrote your story?

The biggest challenge was trying to keep it real and not preachy. What would a person do if this were a real situation? Would a mother really let her young son stay behind? Most moms wouldn’t, so why does this one? I didn’t want to have trite or pat answers.

 What excited you the most about this story?

Each of the character’s unique voices came easily, and that almost never happens when I’m writing.

Since we’re in a holiday mood, what’s your favorite Christmas tradition? And/Or what’s your favorite Christmas story?

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the children’s book, Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect. Just a sweet story about compassion and selfless giving.

My favorite Christmas tradition is our “Tree Trimming Night.” A night where our family gets together to put up and decorate our tree. Afterward we have pizza and everyone gets to open one present (wrapped in wrapping paper with Christmas trees on it, of course). As my kids have gotten older, we haven’t always been able to have our special night, but this year I’m hoping to bribe my daughter and her friends to come help.

I love trimming our tree, too, with my kids. Thanks for stopping by!

*****

From Christmas fiction off the beaten path:

“Those Who Stayed” by Ronnell Kay Gibson. Years ago, a gunman and a store full of hostages learned some important lessons about faith and pain and what really matters in life — and the echoes from that day continue to the present. 

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, 24Symbols, Kobo

*****

Ronnell surrounds herself with words and teenagers. She specializes in young adult contemporary with a sprinkling of the mysterious. She also writes youth and adult devotions and is one of the editors for HAVOK Publishing. Self-proclaimed coffee snob and Marvel movie addict, Ronnell has also titled herself a macaroon padawan and a cupcake Jedi. High on her bucket list is to attend San Diego Comic Con. Ronnell lives in central Wisconsin, with her husband, two teenagers, and two Pomeranian puppies. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and on her website, ronnellkeygibson.com.

 

 

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