Show vs. Tell: On Using Character

As part of my ongoing blog series on how to show, not tell, I’m asking you to remember your characters. They are great tools for showing. USE THEM.

Using Your Characters

Bad things do happen. How I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life.

– Walter Anderson

Drop the Redundant Modifiers

As writers, we are constantly under pressure to explain. So it’s no wonder that sometimes, we double-explain things. And nothing needs to be explained twice. So cut that crap in half.

He sighed, understanding that this was the end.
He sighed.

She eyed him, noting the suspicious tone of his voice.
She eyed him.

Fed up with his antics, he pulled the knife from her belt.
She pulled the knife from her belt.

If you want to take the easiest approach to “Show vs. Tell,” you won’t have to learn anything more than how to cut. What can be inferred, and what must be stated explicitly? Use those questions to tighten your work.

Using Sensations and Memories for Emotion

“Telling” an emotion is just the worst. When you simply state how someone feels, it saps all the energy out of the feeling. Try to bounce descriptions off your characters’ experiences, or connect us to their physical sensations, when you give us those  emotions:

He was angry when he said, “I love you.”
The words rumbled under the surface of his skin: “I love you.”

She hated when he spoke to her this way.
She shoved her hands in her pockets and tore at the lint. Before she said the next thing on her mind, her fingers were poking holes in the fabric.

He saw the frustration in her eyes.
He backed away. In her eyes he could see the first week of their marriage, the three days where he had not done the dishes.

Emotions are generally stronger when you put effort into handing them over.

Filter Words

Words like felt, saw, thought, heard, and realized all run the risk of “telling” us something through a character’s POV. The problem with these filter words is that those words drive a filter between the reader and character (essentially putting up a barrier between us). When we are distanced from the character, we care less about them. So convert your filter words to something else:

I heard a rustle in the bushes.
Behind me, leaves rustled like crinkling paper. 

She felt like the world was falling apart.
The ground–it should be shaking. There should be cracks on the walls, plaster falling from the ceiling. The glass should be shattering. But it wasn’t.

He thought he saw someone in the window.
His gaze was drawn to the picture window, and for an instant a figure stood behind the frosted black glass.


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