September 27, 2012 by jcfarnham
A character is defined by action.
Let the statement sink in.
A lot of times as an author, we want to tell our audience about our character. James is kind. Then, we show James stealing candy from a baby.
Okay, I’ll admit that most instances aren’t that dramatic, but it’s easy sometimes to say one thing about a character and unintentionally have that person act in a contrary manner. There are a few points to take away from the example.
First, no matter how much you think that it’s efficient to tell the reader about your character, they’re simply not going to believe you. One instance that contradicts what you’ve been saying sets the narrator up as a liar. This goes for the opinions of your other characters as well. If everyone says to each other that James is a good guy and you show him doing something awful, the reader is going to get the impression that James is a bad guy who is fooling his buddies. That’s fantastic if that’s what you want to show. If not, it ruins the credibility of your work.
Second, it emphasizes how important it is to show characterization instead of telling. Think about the character’s qualities and then figure out a way to show those qualities. Resist the urge to tell!
Third, you must be consistent. Consider your character arc. James needs to go through a transformation in your work. At the start of the story, he’s a great guy. You show him doing noble acts. Then, tragedy strikes. Now, James robs from a baby. This gives you emotional impact. A great guy is driven to do bad things. If you show him doing something bad before the tragedy, you’ve ruined everything. There is no change, no emotional impact. He was sometimes good and bad before; he’s sometimes good and bad now.
Contradiction is the bane of good characterisation. Take Brian’s advice. Just like a character’s friends should shed some light on them, so too should that characters actions. When I talk about a good foundation this is what I mean.
If you like Mr Foster’s take on the matter and what to read some more of his musings, he has a blog (which I have previously linked to in my CMCY posts). Within he covers ground similar to me, but has a interesting and differing take on the craft, and offers a public critiquing/coaching service. If that’s your kind of thing as well, head on over, he knows what he’s talking about!