Showing Character: Word Choice, Adverbs, and Action

Jan 16, 2012 11:14 pm
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For the first time, I’m participating in the Goodreads reading challenge; my goal is to read sixty books in 2012. In trying to get a head start, I’ve read five books so far and I’m merrily devouring a sixth.

All this reading has made me notice something that most of us do subconsciously on some level, but it’s still good to make yourself aware of: ways to define and underline characterization.

The best ways to accomplish this still lie in voice, action, opinions, decisions, dialogue, etc., but there are ways to weave characterization into your narrative that will make your characters immensely more vivid. This works especially well for non-PoV characters, who–outside of dialogue–don’t have the benefit of voice to show off their personality or traits.

In fact, I sort of characterized myself in the first paragraph of this post: I’m merrily devouring a sixth.

This tells you a lot about me. It tells you I’m probably in a good mood both at the time of writing this and when reading the book; it tells you how quickly I’m reading this book, it tells you I’m the type to get excited about reading.

Using strong verbs or well-placed adjectives/adverbs is a great way to spice up your writing, but you can use them for more than that. If you want to show character through your regular narrative–descriptions, getting-from-here-to-there parts, otherwise insignificant actions–you have several options, equally valid. Which one you want to use depends on several factors.

Word Choice

Kelly climbed over the fence.

Kelly clambered over the fence.

Kelly leaped over the fence.

Kelly shot over the fence.

Kelly glid over the fence.

Is your character straight-forward? A little clumsy? Athletic? Determined? Mysterious? Try to look at their actions and which word best showcases their traits.

Earlier, I said I devoured a book. This has eager connotations. I could also have said I inhaled the book, which would make me seem more thoughtful, while still going through the pages quickly. What if I’d simply read it? Or worked my way through? Raced through? Skimmed it? Studied it?

When you still have little to go on with a character, the perfect word can help them crystallize in the reader’s mind; with established characters, it’ll help keep them vivid.

This method works well because of how invisible it is. It rarely takes up extra space, it doesn’t draw much attention to itself, and it doesn’t impede the pacing in any way.


Cheerily, Nathan stirred his soup.

Thoughtfully, Nathan stirred his soup.

Rapidly, Nathan stirred his soup.

This method is probably the trickiest. Adverbs and adjectives aren’t exactly well-loved, and for good reason. They’re easily overused, and often count as telling instead of showing. Instead of saying that Nathan cheerfully stirred his soup, you can show him smiling, show his spoon clanking off the bowl, etc. In a lot of cases, that’ll be better.

Sometimes you want the adverb, though. It’s effective. It gets the job done, in and out, often without affecting your pacing or drawing attention to itself.

Aside from the risk of telling, there’s the risk of voice–that is to say, if your PoV character is distraught over the loss of their cat, they may not use words like ‘cheerily’ to describe someone. They may not even notice those kinds of details in the first place. Make sure the observation works on every level.

All of this makes the adverb method risky, but it’s also a golden opportunity–you get to show character twice. Your descriptions will reflect on both your PoV character and the observed character.

A subtle difference between this and method #1 is that adverbs often don’t directly show character, but rather mood or intention. The reader will instead infer character from how they feel about the activity. This works best when the adverb contradicts the action.

After all, if Curtis is diligently studying for a test, it’ll tell you something about him, for sure–but it’ll tell you way more if he’s excitedly studying for a test. If he makes the bed, he can do it quickly or he can do it angrily. Surprise your reader. If your adverb doesn’t completely change the way your reader looks at the action, the adverb may not be necessary at all.


Alisha gingerly climbed the fence.

Alisha curled her fingers into the wire mesh of the fence, her hands spaced roughly a foot apart. She pulled at the fence as if it’d give way, and when it didn’t, her arms slackened again. With narrowed eyes, she glanced up, assessing the height. She placed the toe of one shoe in an opening…

This is showing versus telling, akin to Nathan stirring his soup. You can insert all kinds of lovely details into these sorts of descriptions, and–if the character is a secondary character being studied by your PoV character–great observations that will reflect on both characters. What sorts of things does your PoV character notice? How do they feel about it? (A carefully placed adverb here may work wonders.)

In general, this is a fantastic way to show character. However, take care to only use it when the observations are relevant. Don’t place undue importance on something totally insignificant unless it reflects on your PoV character somehow, eg. they’re feeling introspective; they’re obsessing over the secondary character; that seemingly insignificant action is actually a metaphor or somehow poignant…

Otherwise, it risks confusing your readers–wait, why are we getting three paragraphs on Nathan stirring his soup?–and bogging down the pacing. This method works best when you need some breathing room in your narrative.

One word of caution: Contradictions in characters make the world go ’round, but it’s often not a good idea when introducing minor characters. If you have a character being fastidious in one scene, but inexplicably sloppy in the next one, readers may have a hard time getting a mental grasp of that character. Instead, why not have two or three examples of them being neat? Then when the character is suddenly sloppy in the next scene, it’s clear to readers that it’s a break in routine that will likely be explained soon, rather than the author being inconsistent.

I think all of the above methods have their place. Your gut will probably help you choose, but it never hurts to be conscious of why that method works. By taking a look at your PoV character, your sentence flow, your pacing, and what you’re hoping to accomplish, you’ll be able to justify why your chosen method works best for your purposes–or why it doesn’t, and why a different approach may be needed.

Any additional thoughts are more than welcome :D


WIP Wednesday: 007, He Is Not

Apr 13, 2011 10:50 am
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I normally prefer to post WIP Wednesday after I’ve done my writing of the day, but today, I’m eager to get some of the things on my to-do list crossed off early. So instead, here’s my current, pre-writing count:

11560 / 75000 words. 15% done!

Hopefully, by the end of the day, I’ll be at 13500 words instead. 2k a day until mid-May should put me well on my way.

(Insert further rhyming here.)

So here’s a snippet. Context: Wodan just asked Valentijn to help him on a ~quest~, which sounds all noble until you realize he’s just asking the kid to do his dirty work.

Anyway, Valentijn isn’t keen on getting himself killed and wants to turn him down, but turning down gods? Not usually good for one’s health. Feeling threatened, Val promptly starts to turn wolf.

Which is just not conducive to conversation at all. I’d get annoyed too, Wodan.

Wodan lowered himself to my height, holding my eyes with his own. They were a frightening, icy blue, and seemed to only get colder with every word that rolled off his lips. “I said: Chill. Out.”


Just like that: gone.

I checked my fingernails. They looked fine. Too long like usual, but human, which was kinda more important right now. I wrapped my arms around my chest and looked askance, at passing cyclists thundering over cobblestone streets, at a tour boat crashing through the nearby canal. I didn’t trust myself yet. These urges couldn’t—didn’t—disappear this abruptly.

And apparently when they did, my mind needed a few seconds to catch up.

“Your new boss isn’t the only one who knows a couple of tricks,” Wodan said drily. “You’re going to have to convince me you’re not wasting my time. I’m, quite frankly,  not impressed at the moment.”

The urge to fur out had passed, but I still breathed heavily, and had a hard time ordering my muscles to relax. Maybe my spectacular lack of control worked in my favor: if it convinced Wodan I wasn’t the man he needed for the job, I wouldn’t have to open my mouth to actually say so. Sure, I’d managed to tell Lillian to stop getting me involved in the life-threatening situations her life seemed to revolve around, but Lillian’s only superpower was the power of a short attention span.

And even then I’d needed a full day and at least three drafts to prepare my speech to her.

“Maybe…” I started when Wodan seemed to have no plans of talking further. “Well, I just—do you think I’m the right person for this, um, quest of yours? I’m just not the hero type. Clearly.”

Aaand now I was quoting superhero movies. At least it kept me from stuttering.

“Exactly. They wouldn’t suspect you.”

Aw, crap.

Another thing I’m struggling with: Balancing Valentijn. He needs to be the awkward dork he, well, is, but he also can’t be so passive and wimpy that it starts to annoy the reader.

Since it’s even starting to annoy me and he actually lives inside my head, that’ll be a challenge. I figure I can either toughen him up a little (which should be doable without de-adorabling him) or engineer a situation in the first chapter or so where he gets to show off his spine. Because he does have one. It’s just not quite, er, coming out right yet.

Of course, since he shows off said spine more and more over the course of the book, it’s also necessary to keep him significantly awkward at the start of the novel. Gotta contrast his character growth with something, right?

For now, though, I’m not going back to edit yet. That’s what second drafts are for. First drafts are for keeping the groove going at all possible costs.


Character Pain and Authenticity

Oct 18, 2010 12:53 pm
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I recently noticed something I’m not happy about: in The Hands of Cally Wu, Cally acknowledges her pain.

Now, this is a positive thing in real life. Acknowledging your pain – realizing: what is happening to me is bad; what this person is doing is wrong; I should change this situation before I get hurt worse - is a very healthy thing. It’s something you see primarily in people who’ve dealt with trauma and gotten out on the other side. People like that safeguard themselves. It can come across as selfish, but it’s a good thing. You’re doing what it takes to survive. It can be a relief to see characters respond to trauma in such a productive way, especially if you care about those characters.

In general, I prefer this response over characters who dismiss their pain. “Strong” characters who brush off their pain like it’s nothing annoy the crap out of me. It’s a pet peeve, I guess *g* While avoidancy happens in real life, it seems to be much more common in fiction.

I do understand people’s reasoning for going with that option. Heck, I’m doing it myself in Heirs. Having characters respond to their pain in productive ways rarely makes for good conflict. It can also border on “woe is me”, depending on the writer, and no one wants to read that.

But avoidance has its downsides, which is why I’ve been avoiding it for both Cally and Lillian (from Always Read the Fae Print).

For one, “strong” characters ignoring their pain is kind of overused. It’s a coping technique, not an end goal. These characters are damaged. You can only ignore that for so long.

If the writer acknowledges this – cool. But even then, few writers manage to tackle it in ways we haven’t seen a million times before.

Another downside: At some point, you just want the character you’re reading about to deal with things. If you’re rolling your eyes at the character brushing things off yet again, it’s not a good sign. Confront the elephant in the room and move on with the story.

The thing is, there are more options than just avoidance vs. dealing. When I went over the changes I need to make to The Hands of Cally Wu, I realized that I needed to change her way of thinking about her pain. Acknowledging it doesn’t work for her. She’s been in the same situation all her life, and there’s no way out.

At that point, you don’t acknowledge your pain. You can’t. You deal with it the best way people know how to, and it usually means fooling yourself. You normalize your pain. You defend your situation. You think: it’s not so bad. Other people have it worse. It’s not like this all the time. I shouldn’t complain.

That realization hit me pretty hard. This coping technique is tremendously unhealthy and painful and wrong, but it’s damn common. I know I’m familiar with it, and so are many of my friends – but people who haven’t been there rarely understand. That might be why it’s so hard to write about.

But when people do it right… it hits the reader in the gut. It makes them squirm and want to hug the character and yank them out of there because: no, honey, it is that bad, you don’t deserve this, stop doing this to yourself.

It’s frustrating to read about, sometimes. It’s risky: people might roll their eyes. People might not want to read about someone who’s that self-destructive, who makes excuses for their situation with no attempts at making it any better. For some, it’s probably as much of a pet peeve as “tough” characters are for me. (They might even fall into the same category, depending on how you look at it.)

But it’s also honest. It’s authentic. And I think it’s a part of going there; of taking the risk and doing what it takes to yank the most painful parts of the story to the forefront, even if it means alienating some of your audience.

Not all stories need this. Not all characters respond this way – but this story needs it, and Cally does respond this way, and I think this is going to help me a lot in moving the novel forward.

Thoughts are, as ever, welcome.


Unreliable Narrators

Jul 24, 2010 4:41 pm
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Shockingly, I’m still alive. Between beta reading, short story editing, and plotting my next novel, I just haven’t had a heck of a lot to write about.

But then I read The Hunger Games the other day, and a lightbulb went off. Especially after my last WIP, The Hands of Cally Wu, I’m very intrigued by unreliable narrators. As far as I can see, there are three types:

  1. The narrator who lies to or purposefully omits information from the reader (see: Justine Larbastelier’s Liar, or any number of first-person detective novels who hide information only to info-dump later)

  2. The narrator who is somehow manipulated into thinking or acting a certain way
  3. The narrator who makes false assumptions/is biased in some way

The first type can be easier to pull off, because you don’t always have to read between the lines – though depending on the kind of lies, their reactions, etc. you can still make it plenty complex – but at the same time risks irritating the reader. Especially if it’s a first-person narrator, it can feel like a huge cheat to realize you’re not as 100% in the character’s head as you thought.

The second and third usually go over better with readers, but are tricky to pull off in different ways. If it’s too subtle, the full impact of the later revelation that they’re mistaken isn’t as strong as it could be. If it’s too on-the-nose, the reader can easily tell they’re being manipulated into thinking a certain way.

Take Katniss’s initial feelings about Peeta in The Hunger Games, for example. At some point these feelings are so strong (without enough action on his side to justify it) that the reader already knows they’re likely false. This can be intentional – and it’s fun to see narrators go off in entirely the wrong direction sometimes – but risks making the book predictable. Just like, in a heck of a lot of books, the characters who hate each other most will likely end up as love interests.

In another example, I finished an urban fantasy novel a few weeks ago wherein Our Heroine was convinced Character X was evil. The problem: she had very little evidence to base it on. Now, with personal entanglements (like Katniss/Peeta), it’s fun to see characters flounder. When it comes to plot – not so much. I was annoyed at Our Heroine for jumping to conclusions when she could be off chasing actual leads. Even more annoyed when she had Character X beaten savagely because of her suspicions. And even more annoyed when she didn’t really seem to feel all that guilty after she was proven wrong.

I love flawed characters, but, er, there are limits.

Anyway, there were also moments in The Hunger Games when I truly didn’t know if Katniss’s suspicions about some characters were correct. This worked on multiple levels – characterization and plot – which, IMO, was a great way to keep the reader guessing and intrigued.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the topic, as well, if you have any to share!


Recurring Themes

Jul 05, 2010 2:10 pm
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I must admit, I’ve never been a particularly ‘literary’ author. I focus more on characters and plot than on pretty descriptions and metaphors; even when reading other people’s work, I don’t always pick up on themes or the author’s underlying intention. I tend to experience fiction through the character’s eyes, which makes it hard to step back and look at the story as more than that. It certainly doesn’t always have to be.

So when I first started writing and saw other authors’ posts on themes and how you’ll find them in your work naturally, I just went, “Um, right,” and went back to my book to further traumatize play with my characters.

They were totally right, of course, but I’m stubborn. It took me a while to accept. *g* While I do still consider characterization my number one priority, it’s exactly through that characterization that the themes emerge. In order to show how character A deals with power, you need a foil in character B; someone who deals with power differently. And suddenly there’s a theme.

Always Read the Fae Print deals with identity in the context of family and culture; where and around whom you feel at home and comfortable. Its sequels, if any ever happen, continue that trend, but from different characters’ perspectives and situations. The Hands of Cally Wu is also about identity – a lot of my work is, actually; it’s something I think about a lot – but examines it in a different way. It’s about control, in a way – and how much of yourself you’ll compromise in order to get what you want, or to keep yourself safe, and where that leaves you as an individual.

All these things I only realized after I’d written the books. But those are the obvious, overarching themes – there are some smaller recurring ones, too, which I find in nearly all of my work. Dead siblings. Troublesome parent/child relationships. Responsibility and guilt. Insiders/outsiders, like non-magical Lillian in her magical family, or transdimensional refugee Yunupaya, or newly-disabled Roy who’s not allowed to return to work as a demon hunter. Lies, ‘for your own good’, and the betrayal that follows.

And then there are the really small things continually popping up: people keep injuring their arms/hands.

No, seriously. I have no idea what’s up with that.

Anyway, I like occasionally taking a step back and recognizing commonalities in my work, figuring out when I’m recycling ideas and when I simply have more to say on the topic. And, since I’ve been watching a lot of Criminal Minds lately – which is all about the themes-stemming-forth-from-characterization – I’m trying to pay more attention to these things, both in my own work and in other people’s.

Care to share any of your own thoughts on themes? I’d love to hear them!


Rooting for the Underdog

May 27, 2010 3:52 pm
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Yesterday’s post by Tessa Gratton got me thinking.

There’s a trend in television, film, and literature that’s not particularly new, but very prevalent: the story of the underdog. The unpopular kid, the nerd, the outsider, the rise from zero-to-hero. We all love an underdog, and there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of stories, obviously – but at this point this trope is so ingrained that it’s occasionally weird to have to remind yourself that it used to be different. That the jocks and cheerleaders were the heroes at some point, and the nerds were the picked-on victims, the outsiders were the scheming villains.

Now I’m all for tipping the scales, but the intense backlash against those kinds of stories has really just reversed the roles. Now the jocks and cheerleaders are the traditional antagonists. They’re the ones turned into stereotypes. The underdog has turned into such a winner that they’ve become the mainstream; the mainstream has become the underdog. It seems like the only times we get to see sympathetic jocks or cheerleaders are when they’re the odd one out, when they have to fight against the rest of their group – thus becoming the underdog themselves.

What I’m just sick of is that the underdog is always right. I can cheer for a character discovering a talent and fighting their way to the championships; I don’t always feel comfortable cheering for them winning by virtue of them being the underdog, no matter what odds they fought to get to this point. All those other competitors, the ones who have won previous championships, the ones with the long-standing histories in the field, with the personal trainers, the snooty faces?

I bet they worked their asses off to get there, too.

We just don’t get to see it. We don’t cheer for them because we don’t know them. Ninety percent of the time, the writer will make them unsympathetic because that’ll make it easier to cheer for the underdog. It’s an easy way out. But hey – this is a competition. I don’t care how nice your protagonist is. I don’t care how unrealistically, over-the-top evil their competitors are. The best participant ought to win. I’ll cheer for your character to reach that spot so they can prove themselves. After that… they’re on their own.

What it comes down to, really, is that you shouldn’t have to put other people down to make your character likable and to have readers root for them. The backlash is understandable after so many stories in which the characters we relate to get put down, but is it fair? The popular kids have stories, too. They’re characters, too. 

I try to be aware of these kinds of knee-jerk biases in my fiction. Just because this person is really attractive doesn’t necessarily mean they’re vain or shallow. It also doesn’t mean they’re just as attractive on the inside. Just because this person is popular doesn’t mean they pick on the unpopular kids; just because this character is a math geek doesn’t mean they don’t have social skills, and doesn’t mean they automatically resent anyone higher on the high school food chain than they are.

This ties in with the backlash against stereotypes. Personally, I’m sick of gay stereotypes. Just like I’m sick of autistic stereotypes, and cheerleader stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and all of those. Write a three-dimensional character, please: make them be defined than more than just their one trait and whatever you associate with that.

But please don’t let this weariness of stereotypes turn you against the people or characters who do happen to fit the stereotype. The problem is not that gay characters are so often flamboyant and effeminate; the problem is that there are very little other types of gay characters to balance those out. So yes, complain about seeing yet another gay stereotype on TV; complain about them prancing around in their fashionable clothes and talking about interior designing and waving their hands; complain that they don’t get to have any romantic storylines – but blame the writers for making those decisions. You’re all wonderfully open, forward-thinking people so this might sound ridiculous, but all-too-often I’ve seen these complaints not directed at the writers but at the characters. At actual people who do have those traits or interests. I see people proclaim, “I’m not going to make my character one of those queers! He’ll be masculine! Yeah!” as thought there’s something inherently wrong with gay characters or people appearing as anything other than 100% straight.

Now I have no problem with subverting stereotypes. Show some diversity, by all means! Just don’t put down the characters we do get because of who they are - put down the fact that they’re two-dimensional, badly written badly, and that it’s often the only representation we get. Because that’s the problem with stereotypes.

Similarly, we all know that attractive, abled, white, cisgendered, straight twenty-somethings are wildly over-represented in fiction, and most of us are completely on board with changing that. Does that mean we should rail against all the people who do fit into that group? Because that seems a little unfair.* Go ahead and roll your eyes at seeing yet another underweight twenty-something woman on the cover of a magazine… but don’t bitch about her being a ‘stick’, ‘not a real woman’ or jokingly tell her to ‘eat a sandwich’. Because that’s pretty darn offensive, too.

Basically: don’t change yourself to fit the mainstream, whatever that may be at the time. Fight your way to the top and claim your identity, your individuality. Be proud of yourself for who and what you are.

But don’t feel like you need to put other people down to get there.

* By this, I mean picking on the individuals. I am not remotely saying it’s wrong to acknowledge white/abled etc. privilege or the issues of over/under-representation, nor am I complaining about ‘reverse racism’. Just wanted to make that clear.