He’s a Nice Man? She’s a Nice Lady?
Anyone who has tried to write fiction for any length of time realizes that character development is quite important to help your story move along and not be “flat.”
A writer who works diligently at his craft will spend much time developing his primary and secondary characters so that they jump out on the page and practically hug the reader, inviting him to join the party!
So, how is a character developed cleverly so that his description, life’s ambitions, demeanor, habits, quirks, and personal appearance are shown not told?
I guess the best way to demonstrate the proper technique is to “show” and not “tell,” so what we’ll do is look at some bad examples and then turn them into good examples.
Before studying the examples, please remember one important rule when working on character development. Listing all of the character’s traits in one paragraph is about the most boring technique a writer could ever use. A writer who develops his characters properly will embed all of the traits into the narration and/or dialogue so that the reader hardly notices what’s been done, yet will enjoy getting to know the characters on a personal level.
Now, let’s look at some bad examples and then compare them with some good examples:
Bad Example Number One: (Description)
“It’s me, Tanya!” She was so nervous, her voice quivered. Tanya was a tall African American teenager who had a nice shape. She wore a ponytail with long ringlets hanging down in front of her ears. Even though it was cold, all she had on were a thin jacket and jeans. She was really cold.
Good Example Number One:
“It’s me, Tanya!” a quivering voice answered. A tall African-American teenager stepped into the doorway, now in full view of the overhead lights. The girl folded her arms in a futile attempt to keep warm, her shapely frame covered with just a thin denim jacket and jeans. Her short ponytail and long strands of ringlets in front of her ears quivered as she tried to keep warm. (From Keystone Stables Book 3: Southern Belle’s Special Gift, p. 11, by Marsha Hubler)
Bad Example Number Two: (Demeanor or Personality)
Skye Nicholson was a thirteen-year-old brat who had been in trouble with the law for years. Now she found herself sitting in a courtroom, which didn’t seem to bother her one bit. She had a terrible temper, which her lawyer tried to control while they sat before the judge for Skye’s hearing. Skye slumped in her seat and yawned. She was really ignorant.
Good Example Number Two:
Skye Nicholson looked cold as an ice cube as she slumped in the wooden chair and stared back at Judge Mitchell. Most ordinary thirteen-year-olds would have been scared to death as a hearing with an angry judge yelling at the top of his lungs. But Skye was no ordinary thirteen-year-old. Her anger matched the judge’s. Only Wilma Jones, her court-appointed lawyer, prevented Skye from exploding. (From Keystone Stables Book 1: A Horse to Love, p.9, by Marsha Hubler)
Bad Example Number Three – (Description of a horse):
The horse was a beauty. He was a reddish-brown color, and he had a stripe down the middle of his face. His ears were real pointy. His mane and tail were silky and his coat was real smooth. He didn’t smell horsey at all. He smelled kind of like fresh-cut hay.
Good Example Number Three – (Description of the same horse):
The horse’s sharp ears pricked forward as if it could read her mind. A white stripe ran down the middle of its face, and its soft mane and tail blew in the breeze like corn silk. Its reddish-brown coat, sleek and smooth, sparkled in the sun. And the smell? Like sweet, fresh-mown hay. (From Keystone Stables Book 1: A Horse to Love, p.26, by Marsha Hubler)
Are you getting the idea? Embed all that information about the character right into the story. Let’s do one more, just for fun:
Bad Example Number Four: (Description and Feelings)
Louellen was totally embarrassed when she fell into her employer’s arms. It wasn’t only because she thought herself clumsy, but she loved this man because he was so handsome with wavy blonde hair and nice brown eyes. He always had wonderful-smelling cologne on too. Louellen was an Amish woman and dressed in Nineteenth Century clothes. She had green eyes and auburn hair with a white kapp on and a navy cape choring dress, which she always wore when she cleaned. When she tripped and fell into the man’s arms, she scared the family dog out of his wits too.
Good Example Number Four:
Louellen gasped for breath as she regained her balance and pulled away from her employer’s arms. His touch, first ever and accompanied by the sweet smell of his expensive Canoe after shave, stirred something deep inside Louellen’s heart that she didn’t expect. For a moment, she focused on his gorgeous wavy, blonde hair and handsome face and then quickly lowered her gaze. Never before had she allowed herself to look into this man’s gentle brown eyes, although she had studied him from a distance. Hands shaking, she adjusted the white mesh kapp covering her auburn hair and ran her hands down the sides of her navy cape choring dress. She shifted her green eyes to the dog sitting nearby with a puzzled look on his face as if to say, “What happened?” (From Love Song for Louellen book manuscript, p.1, by Marsha Hubler)
Well, there you have some character development examples for you to analyze.
What doesn’t work in the bad examples? What does work in the good examples? You decide; then look at some of your own character descriptions and see what you can do to improve them. Get those characters out of that boring descriptive box and turn them loose with their surroundings, some action, and some backdrop. Your editor and your reader will enjoy your writings much more!
Next time, we’ll discuss verbs that can kill your manuscript.
P.S. Our brochures are ready for our October writers’ conference. You can receive one via email or snailmail. Check out our faculty at www.susquehannavalleywritersworkshop.wordpress.com