Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Sage Advice from Last Week

with one comment

There was a little blogothon about how to write compelling characters. I didn’t get a chance to read what everyone had to say about it, but I did read what Elana Johnson had to say about it. Oh, and it made sense.

The Trip

Clumsiness, The Greatest Character Flaw (not really)

She highlights six things to exaggerate humanness in your characters.

  1. Flaws
  2. Secrets
  3. Fears
  4. Emotion
  5. Mistakes
  6. Growth

This is what I learned:

Your character has to have flaws to be human, or they’re perfect and not worth reading. We don’t want to read about someone who’s perfect, that’s boring. This doesn’t mean they’re clumsy or bad artists. It means they have a deep character flaw. Something that gets in their way. It’s a limitation or an imperfection. It could be a problem or a deficiency. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be super successful, it just means that underneath that success, there’s some deep, underlying flaw that makes them human and accessable.

Your character will also have secrets or things that they don’t want other people to know about them. No one reveals everything about themselves–their past, maybe their emotions, or maybe their fears. People are very scared of being vulnerable and will often lie or cover themselves in order to appear as perfect as possible.

Humans fear. We fear death, we fear love. Someone who often appears unafraid in real life is often very afraid. There is no such thing as being unafraid. The opposite of fear is courage: looking fear in the eye and facing it. Facing fear and being unafraid are not synonymous.

Your character needs to be afraid of something. It could be loss. Your character could be afraid of being alone. But this fear needs to drive their actions to some degree. It adds dimension to your character. They aren’t sitting with that big group of people just because that’s what the writer decided, but because they’re afraid of not fitting in.

Even if your character is stoic and unemotional, they have emotions, they just don’t show it. If your character is not feeling any emotions, then we’re reading about a robot. Sometimes people want to read about a robot, but only if they’re warned!

People are often guided by emotion and this might drive them to make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes are because of emotion, or fear, or because their judgment was clouded by something in their past. It could just be because they aren’t perfect. Either way, mistakes are what we want to read about. We want to see someone make a mistake and fix it–so we can have the courage to do the same in our own lives.

Finally, your character needs to grow as a person. We are never the same when we go through something big! And something better be happening in your book. Most books are about your character finding out something about themselves (they’re secretly an alien, they actually really want to be an astronaut and not a lawyer) or learning how to do something new (love, trust, make their own decisions, etc). Books are often about self-discovery and so if your character is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning, then there’s a problem.

The key takeaway is this:

You want your characters not to be a “character” but a human.

You want people to relate to your character, to cry with them and love with them and sympathize with them. If your character isn’t human then we aren’t going to feel anything for them.


Written by Jessica Lei

October 4, 2010 at 6:00 am

One Response

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  1. hi!This was a really superb topic!
    I come from itlay, I was fortunate to come cross your blog in baidu
    Also I obtain a lot in your blog really thanks very much i will come daily


    October 5, 2010 at 9:55 pm

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