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.

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. Kristen Lamb discusses this here. As a reviewer, you should be looking for whether a writer is using either of these techniques less well than they could.

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 writes, “Carol was angry” and stops there, that’s “telling,” but it tells us next to nothing. Although, as blogger Jael McHenry suggested in Writer Unboxed, sometimes those kinds of details don’t matter at the moment, or the writer needs to just move the story along. In those cases, just telling can be all right.

The author could write, “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.

Direct Showing

“Showing” character means having the character’s personal environment, 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 son of a bitch! 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?

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 last two examples could be fine, depending on what the author was trying to do. In the “telling” case, the author may want to create emotional distance as part of her larger plan for how she’s going to present Carol over the course of the story.

In the admittedly over-the-top “showing” case, maybe Carol really is a psycho who hides it well until something triggers (pun intended) the behavior.

But if either of these examples represent what the writer does every time she wants to present some aspect of a character’s personality, that’s a problem.

From Another Character’s POV

There’s another way of “telling” personality traits that is legitimate and often valuable: when one character describes another’s personality or behavior. There are lots of ways to do this. The character doing the describing can:

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

Adding an illustrative action by Ted, as I did in the first example above, adds more depth by showing an aspect of the relationship between Ted and Alice, plus one of Ted’s character traits.

Indirect Showing

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: socialites or gangsters… or both.
  • Describe what they do for a living: run a backhoe or run the company that makes backhoes.
  • Describe the pets they keep—a 2-pound Chihuahua or a 15-foot boa constrictor—or don’t.
  • Describe a habit or tic they have, and so on.

These methods show the characteristic by telling how it manifests itself in the character’s life.

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

Questions For You

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

  • Is the author both showing and telling the reader the characters’ traits?
  • Is the author relying too much on one way of presenting character traits?
    • If so, how and where could he use a different technique to better effect?
  • Is the way the author presents a trait or characteristic appropriate to her intent, so far as you can tell, in calling attention to it at this moment in the piece?
    • If not, why not?
  • Is he showing or telling a trait in the most effective way?
    • Would using a different technique be better? If so, what?
  • Is the author “showing” too much? That is, showing character traits when it would simply be better to tell them?

What cues do you use to evaluate how well the author is presenting a character? Add your comments or suggestions in the comments box below.


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