Characterization is key to a good story.
Truthfully, there are several keys to a good story, and no one alone unlocks the door to success. (That is, creating a story that captures the imagination of the reader. Financial success is another matter.)
Even with all the other keys in place, a story won’t click with the reader unless its characters are people we can relate to. Every writer knows this – and we all think our characters are realistic and loveable. So when a beta reader or reviewer refers to them as “clichéd” or “cardboard cut-out,” we go into shock. How can you say that? I love my characters! They’re like real people to me!
And that’s good! If your characters aren’t real to you, you’re not going to portray them convincingly. But if they look flat on the page to others despite your love for them, what can you do?
One thing that keeps characters from being compelling has to do with the “show, don’t tell” principle. That is, don’t tell me what these people are like; show me. It’s a bit more work for the writer, but it can give a character facets that reflect the light of reality.
I recently came across an example of how this works in an unlikely place: my daughter’s blog.
Shelley isn’t a writer but is the mother of five kids aged 10, 8, 7, 5, and 3, and – when she find the time – blogs about their antics. In her latest post, she told about their first time at a roller rink.
These are my grandkids, so I enjoyed her descriptions because I love the kids. But then I realized that the post made the kids come alive for me not only because I already know them, but because of the technique she used to describe them. She unconsciously provided a great example of characterization through showing, rather than telling.
She was more than a little surprised when I asked permission to use excerpts from her post for this purpose. But once I explained what I was up to, she agreed. I’ve taken some minor liberties with the wording, because she was more concerned with conveying the scene than with proper writing.
And, perhaps, the only reason I like this is because I love the kids. But it seems like a good example of lifelike characterization. I don’t know. Just humor me, please, while I introduce you to my grandkids at the skating rink.
First, three-year-old Zuri:
Zuri clip-clop-slid over to get the walkers with me, quietly crying the whole time. “I… I… don’t wike it!” By the time we got back to the other kids, she snuffled. “Can I take them off now?” Of course! Once the skates were removed, she was content to watch… and fell asleep in my arms about 9:30.
Can’t you just see a three-year-old trying to move in unfamiliar, clunky skates, whimpering? This little glimpse of the action is much more interesting than simply saying, “Zuri didn’t want to skate and was content to watch the others.”
Now let’s take a look at Zuri’s ten-year-old sister. You can clearly see what kind of girl she is:
Avery cracked me up. She and Bennett chose roller blades rather than skates. They’d been on single blade ice skates, so this would be a piece of cake. But once the blades were on her feet, Avery found it hard to move. “I look good for a picture, just not a video!”
More about 8-year-old Bennett, mentioned above:
Bennett did not show his athleticism out there, but he skated all night with a fierce look of concentration on his face.
Here’s the five-year-old:
Everett held tight to that walker and stuck to the sidelines. He slowly worked up his nerve, going back and forth along the wall near where I sat. He never went around the rink, but his grin told me he was having fun, once he loosened up a bit.
And finally Mikaiah, the seven-year-old:
Mikaiah started off really wobbly but showed no fear as he made his way around the rink—roller-walking, not skating. He worked hard, and got really sweaty, and had fun!
So next time you’re tempted to write, “Wherever she went, she was concerned about what sort of impression she made” or “The little boy was timid” – resist the urge. Don’t tell us! Instead, put those darlings in a situation where they can show us what they’re made of.