What’s wrong with this picture?
‘I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, find my big green eyes crusted with sleep. I brush my beautiful brown hair and check my flawless skin for pimples, but of course I don’t have any, so I don’t need to put on any makeup. Then I walk over to my closet and put on my school uniform shirt and skirt, check my reflection one more time. Then I head down stairs for a delicious, filling breakfast.’
Obviously that paragraph is insipid to the point of hyperbolic, but it’s not like writing like this doesn’t exist.
Remember learning the concept of “show, not tell” back in elementary school?
Yes, it’s still (and always) super relevant.
Breaking out of the rut of the easier opposite, “tell, not show”, is difficult, especially when you feel that you have so much information about a character that you feel you NEED to get to the reader, or they won’t have the image of the character that you want them to have.
Let’s start with the harsh reality: your readers are definitely not going to have the image you want them to have, so don’t worry about it.
And anyway, describing your character down to the most minute detail isn’t going to draw your readers to your character. They want to see their motivations, their emotions, their actions. They want to see what makes them ache.
If you’re writing a full-length novel, you have all the time in the world to show a full picture of your protagonist, antagonist, or anyone else in your cast of characters.
Don’t give your readers everything at once, and don’t give them features, give them emotions.
Click the Continue Reading button for two thoughts on the matter.
1 Ease Into It, And Always Start With What’s Important
When I was in college and first started talking about my writing with my friends, one friend—who I’ve known since pre-school—asked me to do two things for her.
Specifically, she asked me not to do two things.
One: No sappy chapter titles.
Two: Don’t introduce your characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and describe every feature they see (like that first example).
They were pretty fair requests, considering the conversation happened around 2008 or 2009, and you don’t have to Google for too long to figure out which YA series was popular around that time.
Give the reader the most important information about the character first: name, gender, age, and how they relate to the world you’ve developed.
Also, don’t wait three chapters to introduce the protagonist. Introduce them as quickly as possible.
Then you give your readers the rest in little pieces, bite by bite, as the novel progresses.
But TFR, what if my character has significant features that will impact them thought the story?
Please, give them that.
Does your character have a hair color outside the norm (i.e. fake red, blue, rainbow, etc.)? Give us that. Does your character have an obvious chase of heterochromia (aka when one eye color is different from the other? Give us that, but don’t be too blatant about it (tip: have it come up in conversation, or have someone else bring it up by teasing the protagonist, or asking how that’s physically possible). Does your character have some sort of physical ailment or missing limb, well, then your readers are going to need to know that.
But your whole vision of the character doesn’t matter. What you see when you think of your character isn’t what your readers are going to see, and that’s okay. Your readers are here for the story, not the description of the number of freckles he or she has on her cheeks, or the exact shape of their eyes.
2. Instead of Showing What They Look Like, Make Us Want To Root For Your Character
It doesn’t matter whether you want your readers to see your protagonist succeed or see them fail, you want them for or against your character, period. You want that more than you want your readers to know what they look like.
You want your readers to want to keep following your character on their adventures, want them to keep turning the page.
Turn all the pages.
Show your readers your character in action. How do they react after witnessing a bad car accident? How do they react to being in a bad car accident? How do they react to good news? How do they react to being hit on at a pair by someone remotely not their type?
Give them the elements of your character and send your readers on the adventure with them.
Remember that paragraph of “tell” from the beginning of the post? Go back and take another read. I’ll wait.
Are you cringing yet?
Instead of doing that, show the readers how your character feels about having to get up in the morning. Are they the type who’s excited for school, to see all their friends and sit in the front row of each of their classes? Or do they not want to go to school because they’re constantly being bullied by the “it clique” and therefore drag out the process of getting ready for as long as possible?
Or show us a little about your protagonist’s home life. Does your character have to pick their way through a messy room to get to their uniform, or is it pristine and the clothes are hanging in the closet organized by color? Does their uniform fit, or is the skirt or pants too tight in the waist because they can’t afford clothes that fit better.
Show a neat appearance, or show them being okay with leaving the house unkempt because they’re running late.
Show us, don’t tell us.
Obviously there are exceptions to every rule (like all the ones I break in the #WhoIsTalyaNightingale manuscript). In writing, all rules should be broken. What’s important is that you break these rules the right away.
And then go back and edit when you’re done.
Have I mentioned the importance of editing yet in this post?
Well, editing is super crucial.
A life-long college sports fan and forever bitter about the country’s east coast biases, Kathryn, The Fake Redhead, graduated from the University of Arizona with a BA in Creative Writing, emphasis in poetry because she felt the fiction studies emphasis was too pretentious. She is currently helping other writers hone their craft while she pursues her dreams of becoming a published novelist.