Showing Character

by: Karen Propp

It’s not enough to simply create, or understand, your characters. More challenging is how to reveal them on the page so they come across as lifelike and vivid as they are in your memory.

There are two basic ways to reveal characters: Showing and Telling.

When you “tell” about a character you simply state some facts or perceptions about a person.

In the following passage from Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl tells us about her father:

“My father found all of this slightly amusing. An intellectual who had escaped his wealthy German-Jewish family by coming to America in the twenties, he had absolutely no interest in things. He was a book designer who lived in a black-and-white world of paper and type; books were his only passion. He was kindly and detached and if he had known that people described him as elegant, he would have been shocked; clothes bored him enormously, when he noticed them at all.”

In the following passage from My Dark Places, James Ellroy tells us about a childhood friend:

“Lloyd was a fat boy from a broken home. His mother was a Christian wacko. He was as foulmouthed as I was and loved books and music just as much. Fritz lived in Hancock Park. He dug movie soundtracks and Ayn Rand novels. Daryl was an ass-kicker, athlete and borderline Nazi of half-Jewish parentage.”

In both these passages, we get a wonderful bundle of information about a character – background, looks, habits, personality. Telling is a quick and easy way to reveal a character to the reader, and often it’s a very effective way to introduce a character to the reader for the first time. Telling is fine. You are, after all, telling a story. Perhaps telling is even more dominant in memoir than fiction because so much of the story hinges on how the writer perceives the various characters.

However, showing is usually stronger and more dynamic than telling.

For example, you could tell us:

Naomi was painfully shy, especially at social gatherings.

But it’s even more effective when the reader gets too see Naomi’s shyness, as in:

Even while the party reached a climax, with drinking and singing in full swing, Naomi stayed in her corner chair, twirling her empty wine glass.

The second passage adds depth and specificity and it puts us right in the moment. You could precede this “showing” line with the previous “telling” line, or you could simply omit the “telling” line and just let us infer Naomi’s shyness. Either way, the showing passage helps. All tell and no show does not make for the strongest possible characterization.

There is a famous writer’s maxim: SHOW DON’T TELL. “Showing” means to let the reader “see” something, experience it for himself as opposed to simply having the information laid out neatly for him by the narrator. Showing something – a character, setting, anything – lets the reader experience it in a more dimensional way than mere telling. Showing also more closely mimics how we experience things in real life, where we see things and draw our own conclusions rather than having everything pointed out to us. In a sense, showing allows the reader to have a more interactive reading experience.

Another advantage of letting us “see” characters is that we can come to know them gradually, our perceptions altering and growing over time. Just as it happens in reality.

METHODS OF SHOWING

There are four basic methods for showing characters:
• Action
• Speech
• Appearance
• Thought

Let’s take a quick look at these methods.

ACTION

Action doesn’t refer to fistfights and blowing up buildings. Action refers to everything that characters do. Jean-Paul Sartre said, "We are our deeds." It’s true. There is no more effective way to reveal a human being than to show what this person does.

This may include “little” actions, like how a character treats the cashier at a check-out counter or how a character applies her make-up in the morning. Everyone handles the minutiae of life in a slightly different way.

Take a look at this passage from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

“His obesity, while disgusting, was not enough to incur the intense hate that we felt for him. The fact that he never bothered to remember our names was insulting, but neither was that slight, alone, enough to make us despise him. But the crime that tipped the scale and made our hate not only just imperative was his actions at the dinner table. He ate the biggest, brownest and best parts of the chicken at every Sunday meal.”

We learn a few things about this man here but the most revelatory thing is the fact that he always takes the best part of the chicken for himself. It’s such a minor thing but it says so much.

We also learn about characters by their “big” actions, actions that have major significance. Since most good stories contain some element of conflict and drama, it’s likely that your characters will be placed in situations where their mettle is tested, where they are forced to take some “big” actions.

In Why The Caged Bird Sings, we see a major action when Maya, as a young woman during World War II, decides that she wants to get a job as a conductor on a San Francisco streetcar. The company running the streetcars had never hired a black person for this job, but Maya will not take no for an answer. She keeps returning to the company office, she repeatedly solicits the help of Negro organizations, she glares at the current conductors. She declares to herself:

“I WOULD HAVE THE JOB. I WOULD BE A CONDUCTORETTE AND SLING A FULL MONEY CHANGER FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.”

And, eventually, she prevails, becoming the first black person to work on a San Francisco streetcar. That’s a “big” action!

You can also give a general sense of a reader’s actions, as in this passage from Russell Baker’s Growing Up:

“In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.

“She ran after squawking chickens, an ax in her hand, determined on a beheading that would put dinner in the pot. She ran when she made the beds, ran when she set the table. One Thanksgiving she burned herself badly when running up from the cellar over with the ceremonial turkey, she tripped on the stairs and tumbled back down, ending at the bottom in the debris of giblets, hot gravy, and battered turkey. Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the slugabed, the drugstore cowboy, the libertine, the mushmouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind whether people liked it or not. She ran.”

In this collage, we don’t just get one specific action from this character but her whole approach to how she handles life.

SPEECH

We also learn a lot about characters when we hear them speak.

This may include how a character talks – the sound, the rhythm, the energy behind their speech. Such is the case in this passage from Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors:

“My mother is from Cairo, Georgia. This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron. Other people sound flat to my ear; their words just land in the air. But when my mothers says something, the ends curl.”

Here the woman’s southern accent is made incredibly vivid, and we’ll hear it whenever she opens her mouth.

And, of course, we also get to know people by what they say. Notice how much we learn about this obnoxious visitor to New York City in David Sedaris’s “City of Angels” (Me Talk Pretty One Day) by what she says:

“I knew exactly what he was up to. I know the rules, I’m not stupid, so I wrote down his name and license number and said I’d report him to the police if he tried any funny business. I didn’t come all this way to be robbed blind, and I told him that, didn’t I, Alisha?

She showed me the taxi receipt, and I assured her that this was indeed the correct price. It was a standard thirty-dollar fare from Kennedy Airport to any destination in Manhattan.

She stuffed the receipt back into her wallet. “Well, I hope he wasn’t expecting a tip, because he didn’t get a dime out of me.”

“You didn’t tip him?”

“Hell no!” Bonnie said. “I don’t know about you, but I work hard for my money. It’s mine and I’m not tipping anybody unless they give me the kind of service I expect.”

We don’t have to be told that Bonnie is suspicious, narrow-minded, and infinitely irritating. We can hear it in her words.

APPEARANCE

When you relate any aspect of a character’s appearance, you let the reader see the person as if she is standing there before us. Appearance can relate to any aspect of a character’s physicality – looks, dress, gesture, any other physical distinctions.

You want to be careful about relying too much on physical appearance as a method for characterization. You can’t always judge a book by its cover. Still, well chosen physical details, can lend great insight into character. And, for most major characters, the reader needs some sense of the person’s appearance, so they can picture the person in their mind as they read.

We get a vivid sense of this character from her looks in this passage from Patricia Hempl’s “Memory and Imagination” (I Could Tell You Stories):

“My father gave me over to Sister Olive Marie, who did look remarkably like an olive. Her oily face gleamed as if it had just been rolled out of a can and laid on the white plate of her broad, spotless wimple. She was a small plump woman; her body and the small window of her face seemed to interpret the entire alphabet of olive; her face was a sallow green olive placed upon the jumbo ripe olive of her habit. I trusted her instantly and smiled, glad to have my hand placed in the hand of woman who made sense, who provided the satisfaction of being what she was: an Olive who looked like an olive.”

And we get a nice glimpse of this character through his way of dressing in this passage from Rick Bragg’s All Over But The Shoutin’’

“He had always been a clean drunk, a well-dressed drunk, what people in that time called a pretty man. He might be cross-eyed drunk but his shoes were always shined, always the best-dressed man in jail. His children and wife might go without, but his shirts were always pressed. Some people had backbone to lean on. Daddy had starch.”

And in this passage from James McBride’s The Color of Water, the blending of looks, dress and gesture give us a quick but complete portrait of a man

“Big Richard was a tall, thin, chocolate-skinned man with a mustache, who favored shades, short-sleeved shirts, shiny shoes, and sharkskin pants, and always held a lit cigarette between his teeth.”

Big Richard seems so close we can almost smell his cigarette smoke.

THOUGHT

In prose writing, the readers has the ability to zoom right inside a character’s mind, much more so than in the dramatic forms of storytelling, such as drama and film. Obviously, what goes on inside a person’s mind reveals much about that character. Inside the mind is where you’ll find a character’s most important, and often private, thoughts.

In fiction, sometimes the writer will report the thoughts of numerous characters. But in memoir, you will mostly only report the thoughts of your own mind. After all, one never really knows for sure what’s going on inside another person’s head.

In this passage from Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, the writer, who has suddenly become a mother, reveals thoughts she probably didn’t share with anyone else:

“In a very real sense, I felt that life could pretty much just hit me with her best shot, and if I lived, great, and if I died, well, then I could be with Dad and Jesus and not have to endure my erratic skin or George Bush any longer. But now I am fucked unto the Lord. Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam. I look down into his staggeringly lovely little face, and I can hardly breathe sometimes. He is all I have ever wanted, and my heart is so huge with love that I feel like it is about to go off. At the same time I feel that he has completely ruined my life, because I just didn’t used to care all that much.”

From these private thoughts, we glimpse a whole spectrum of colors about this person.

In this passage, Lamott is revealing thoughts that occurred in the past tense, thoughts that corresponded with her actions at the time. But in memoir, many of the thoughts revealed are those where the writer is reflecting on the past from the present-day perspective. In the following passage from Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, the writer reveals a blend of both past and reflective thoughts:

“I remember the look on my father’s face as he sat and held my mother’s hand that night I found them in the kitchen. I remember my mother hearing the news of his death, and crying out from such an astonishing place of loss and loneliness. Yes, those two people loved each other. It is plainer now in retrospect than it ever was when they were alive. Or maybe I can just see it a little better now, having learned for myself what a bittersweet thing love can be. From my vantage, love – no matter how deep or desperate it may be – is not reason enough to stay in a bad relationship, especially when the badness of it all is damaging or malforming other people. But I didn’t get to make that choice for my parents, any more than I get to make it for you.”

As seen in this example, thought can reveal not only something about the person doing the thinking but also the characters he is thinking about.

MIXED METHODS

When revealing characters you usually won’t be using your methods – action, speech, appearance, thought – one at a time. Rather you will use two or more of these methods simultaneously. Think of these methods as instruments in an orchestra, blending together to create a unified effect.

In this brief passage from Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl manages to utilize all four methods of showing (and even a little telling) to reveal her mother:

“My mother had lots of energy and education and not a lot to do. “If only my parents had let me be a doctor,” she often wailed as she paced the apartment like a caged tiger. She tried one job and then another, but they never lasted. “Nobody has any vision!” she announced after being politely fired as the chief editor of the Homemaker’s Encyclopedia. “I really thought that an essay on English queens and their homemaking skills was a brilliant idea.”

We don’t learn everything there is to know about this woman here. But we can certainly see her and sense her and we know right away how different or similar she is to our own mothers.