Critique Technique, Part 12: Showing and Telling in Character Development

“Show, don’t tell.” We writers get told that all the time. ALL the time. (Well, except recently, when blogger Jael McHenry suggested “flipping the script” on Writer Unboxed.)

The thing is, neither telling nor showing are wrong, per se. What’s “wrong” is relying on either one too much, or using one technique where the other would be more effective. This is true in character development and revelation as much as it is in any other aspect of writing. As a reviewer, that’s what you should be looking for in someone else’s writing.

Let’s take a few examples. Carol’s relationship with boyfriend Bob is everything she hoped and dreamed it would be. She gets all tingly and happy whenever she thinks of him. He calls her every day, even when they’ve been together. He gives her little gifts and compliments. She’s thinking he’s “the one.” Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Bob tells her he thinks they need some time apart; he needs to reevaluate the relationship. How does Carol react?

If the author then writes, “Carol was angry” and stops there, that’s “telling,” but it tells us next to nothing. If the author writes, “Carol was angry. Her feelings were hurt. She didn’t understand how Bob could be so loving, then want to dump her. She felt confused and depressed.” That’s all “telling,” too. Yes, it provides more information, but did you notice how much emotional distance there is between you, the reader, and Carol? The writing is clinical, impersonal, analytical. You don’t much care about Carol’s situation. Tough noogies, Carol, you’re thinking. Next story.

“Showing” character means having the character’s actions and behaviors illustrate their mood, personality, etc. Let’s go back to Carol and Bob. This time, the author writes:

Carol slammed the phone down. “You motherfucking son of a bitch,” she screamed. “You’re not going to do that to me.” She stomped down the hall to her armory, where she wrenched open the display case containing her knife collection and pulled down her favorite machete. Stroking the sharpened edge with her thumb, she crooned, “It’s been a long time since you tasted flesh, hasn’t it, baby?” She slammed the blade home in its scabbard, wrapped the belt around her waist, and yanked the catch tight before turning her attention to her gun safe. Which one? she wondered. The pump-action shotgun or the full-auto AK-47?

That’s showing, all right—you can feel the rage—but is it too much showing, or the right kind?

Now, it’s possible that either of these examples could be fine, depending on what the author was trying to do. But if these examples represent what the writer does every time she wants to present some aspect of a character’s personality, that’s a problem.

Then there’s the other aspect of “telling” personality traits that is legitimate and often valuable: when one character describes another’s personality or behavior. There are lots of ways this can be done. The character doing the describing can:

  • Tell the character being described what he perceives her to be: “You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in his thoughts: Alice is such a goofball, Ted thought.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in narrative: Ted thought Alice was a goofball.
  • Describe the character to another character: “Alice is such a goofball,” Ted told Bob.

Adding an illustrative action by Ted (“You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice, giving her an affectionate hug.) then adds more depth by showing an aspect of the relationship between Ted and Alice, plus one of Ted’s character traits.

These are all direct methods of showing or telling characterization. There are also more subtle, indirect ways. The author can:

  • mention something the character owns,
  • describe the place they live in (not only whether it’s a mansion, say, or a cardboard box, but how that place is furnished and kept),
  • describe how they dress and keep themselves (clean or dirty, satin or jeans),
  • identify who they associate with,
  • describe what they do for a living,
  • describe the pets they keep (or don’t),
  • describe a habit, tic, or trait they have, and so on.

Many of these methods are “showing by telling”: the author is showing the characteristic by telling the reader how it manifests itself in the character’s life.

To summarize, then, neither “showing” nor “telling” a character’s trait is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is whether such showing or telling is the most effective way to present that trait and whether the author relies too much on one technique or the other.

Here are some questions for you to ask as you review a work:

  • Is the author relying too much on one way of presenting character traits?
  • Is the way the author presents a trait or characteristic appropriate to her intent, so far as I can tell, in calling attention to it at this moment in the piece?
  • Is showing or telling this trait the most effective way to do it? Would using a different technique be better? If so, what?

What cues do you use to evaluate how well the author is presenting a character?

Thanks for leaving a reply