"Show don’t tell" is not a golden rule in narration and description but just a basic guide. There is not perfect way to describe a character. How, then can we make believable characters?
If the character is hazy to the writer, he/she will be hazy to the reader too. Not all characters are people. In a fable, for instance, dialogue is put into the mouths of animals and plants. To make a character believable, one has to harness his memory, imagination, and experiences between the dictionary, the thesaurus, and the stories he has read. These tips might be useful to fit it all together.
1. Before starting to write a story, visualize your reader. Who is going to read your story? Your reader might not need the information so you’re just wasting time.
2. Decide which genre you are going to work on— short story, novel, poem, farce, drama….?
3. Visualize the character you want to create. Why are you interested in the character?
4. Keep a character notebook, family tree, brief biography, or character profile— a sort of detective’s dossier— for either expanding or toning down characterization as you go on with your story. Details might include likes and dislikes, sex life, education, experiences, friends, enemies, wardrobe, mannerisms, motivations, etc. to show what your character is made of.
5. To develop the plot, answer the five W’s: who, when, where, how, and why and put them all together in a synopsis or summary to come up later with the details of what happened.
6. Decide on technique (expression, approach, method) and tone or mood. How can you breathe life into an otherwise paper-doll character physically, intellectually, psychologically? Choose specific words— the “right word”— to describe the character.
SHOW, DON’T TELL. The stock advice is to “show, don’t tell”. “Showing” (description) is not everything. Showing brings a character to life; it evokes an image or picture; it makes the action livelier. In describing or showing you see; in narrating or telling you get a short-lived glance. There are times when telling is the right thing to do. These tips might help you:
1. “Dramatize” to engage the reader. You do not need to show every detail, but what is being described needs to evoke an image or picture of what is necessary to the scene. Allow the reader to experience reality through the character’s action and reaction. For example, through dialogue, permit him to hear the character’s words, thoughts and feelings. Through sensory description (use of the five senses) show with realistic details the emotion you want the character to convey in order to bring the reader to the “moment”.
2. There are times though when the most appropriate thing to do is just to tell or report the most meaty or most dramatic part/s by using specific words- “the right word or words.” A blow by blow account of the already known facts of life makes the story boring if the reader does not need the information. You are just wasting your words, time, and space — a style that transgresses the rule of compression or brevity and smacks of over-writing.
3. LESS IS MORE. Be specific, not general. To do so, avoid adjective overload. A specific word paints a sharply- delineated picture; a general word conveys a vague or blurred image. It’s not the mounds of description that impress. For example: a large, round, ballooning nose that flares when a person smiles or laughs may be just “bulbous” or “gourd-like”; a tall woman with long robust legs, large shoulders and buttocks is “Amazonian” or simply “big-boned”; a face filled with ginger speckles or spots is “freckled”; brown spots on the face and hands occurring in old age may be described as “age spots”; deep eye sockets due to malnourishment may be described as “sunken”; red, irritated eyes may be “bloodshot”; a full, puffed-out hair style is “bouffant”, and so on.
4. Strike a balance. Focus the spotlight on the major characters and put behind or tone down the minor ones.
5. Pause only for vital details that move the story vigorously forward.
6. Humanize your characters. If your character has no fallibility, there is no believability because nobody is perfect. Everyone has a “leak” somewhere. Search for at least one undesirable trait to make for imperfection. Remember that an unbeatable hero is a dramatic wash-out because there is no suspense when he is not in danger. Remember too that brutal guys are likable in some ways because no one is totally bad, so even mean people have a saving grace. Should you want to make a bad guy look or sound lovable, you can, for example, allow him to whip up a guy worse than himself, or make him appear with a battered face after trying to save a child (he himself had raped) from a kidnap gang. The reader would want to see moral change or character growth. The protagonist should either change or learn something about himself and his ordeals. If he remains static, why go through the trouble of writing? Remember stories are parables.
7. Light up your story with tension and differences in personality and speech and conflict of interests or motives. When everything adds up to a win-win situation, suspense and conflict are lost. Screwy, isn’t it? So why write the stuff?
8. You may want to use reflector characterization through suggestion to describe a character. Instead of you (the author) describing the person, allow another character to do so. Example: A student said, “Professor Smith, if I had your looks and talent, I would not be in the classroom.”
9. You can achieve a motion picture effect by combining physical description with action. Example: “She cast a hazel -eyed glance at him.”
10. Distinguish between inactive and active description. Example: He had bad teeth. Improved: His teeth, tobacco-stained, were broken and rotting.
11. Distinguish between emotionless and emotional description. Example: She was a polite conversationalist. Improved: She had a light touch in conversation and wisely listened in the background.
12. Idiolect (the distinctive speaking style of every person) and dialect are impressive features to portray, but you can employ formal language. For example, Robert Frost, although so much of his poetry concerns the Yankee farmer, never uses the dialect even in his narrative poems, an example of which is “The Death of the Hired Man.” The conversation between husband and wife in the story is carried on in formal English.
13. Speech verbs like “said”, speech tags, and gestural pauses are often unnecessary if your dialogue is written to convey mood and tone. Try to include only striking facial expressions and characteristics to convey emotion or feeling. Don’t describe every facial gesture or action. (Avoid overdoing narration and description.)
14. Minimize authorial intrusion when a character speaks.
15. Allow your characters to misspeak, mishear, misunderstand, stammer, mumble, grunt, mutter, whisper, break sentences, speak grammatically or ungrammatically— this is the way we speak.
16. Don’t allow your character to tell the story ahead. When you do, “the plumbing shows” and you lose your reader.
17. Don’t allow a character to tell everything. Too smooth and too long expository dialogues sound labored and artificial. Dialogues that tell you everything are flat and boring.
18. Use dialogue to heighten dramatic tension. Allow old wounds to ache and open, accusations and grudges to fly, and “hatchets long buried” to come out in dialogues or conversation.
19. Contrast the speaking styles of the characters to make them possess unique personalities. Dialogue loses its attraction if your characters speak in the same manner. How monstrous it would be if everyone thought and behaved alike!
20. Write naturally and simply. ###