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.
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