Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part I


Steve Leigh headshotIn my creative writing classes, I generally break fiction into four basic components: Character, Setting, Plot, and Theme.  I spend more time on characterization than the others, honestly, since I think that no matter what genre you’re writing, the reader cares primarily about the characters.  You can be a tremendous worldbuilder and create an incredibly intricate background for the novel; you can have a blazing plot with startling shifts and turns and unexpected directions (all properly foreshadowed, of course); you can lay a deep, meaningful foundational theme underneath everything to support the entire structure. That’s all fine, but if the characters are wooden and one-dimensional, it’s also all for naught.  Yet if the characters are complex, real, and compelling, then the reader will forgive small defects in setting, plot, and theme… because it’s the characters we care about.  

It’s the characters we remember when we close a book. We identify and bond with the characters, we cry and laugh with them, we fear for them,  we root for (or sometimes against) them as they make their way through the events of the book.  

Characters can make or break us as writers.

So learning how to create great characters is s skill we must all continue to hone, no matter where we are in our careers.  Here are seven strategies that I outline for my creative writing students.  I make absolutely no claim that this is the only way to go about characterization.  It is simply one way among many.  If you like any of this, feel free to apply it in your own work.

Strategy 1: Physical Details

Personally, I find the physical description of a character to be perhaps the least important aspect of characterization.  Yes, it’s good to give the reader some idea of what the character looks like, but a catalogue description of facial features, height, weight, hair color, skin color, and clothing doesn’t actually help in filling out the character for the reader.  Here’s a description:  “Scott had blue eyes and dirty blond hair, was six feet tall, and weighed about 185 pounds.”  All that may be accurate, but it’s also rather general and bland, and it tells us nothing about Scott as a character.

Here’s an exercise for you.  Think of a novel where you came away with a very clear picture of the character in your head.  Now go back and read the actual descriptions of that character in the text.  My bet is that you’ll find that your mental image contains several details that aren’t at all in the author’s actual text:  instead, you’ve provided those details from your own imagination.  

That’s fine, too.  It’s why you’ll see the film of a novel you’ve read and either agree or disagree violently with the casting of the actors, because those actors do or don’t match the image in your head.  The thing is, each and every reader will take away a different vision of the characters in your written work, and each and every reader’s interpretation is exactly correct — for them.

Our job as writers is to provide the reader with a few specific “telling details” — small, precise, and important details that provide not just a physical description, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a psychological description of the character.

Here’s an example, from the novel Shame by Salman Rushdie.  “Mr. Eduardo Rodriques was as slim and sharp as his enormous collection of pencils…”  

Isn’t that terrific?  I can see Eduardo Rodrigues from that single sentence, as clearly as if he were standing here in front of me… and I have the added bonus of having some idea of his psychological construction — what kind of person has an enormous collection of pencils?   One sentence, with a bare but very pertinent detail that brings the character to sudden life.

That’s what we should all be striving to accomplish.

IM CoverStrategy 2: Show & Tell

“Show, don’t Tell.”  Everyone tends to hear that in writing classes.  Here’s a bit of “Tell”:

 Fred was out of shape and overweight.  

Now a “show” of the same statement:  Fred had to pause at the second landing, out of breath already. His calf muscles ached from the exertion of walking the two flights of stairs and he leaned against the knob of the railing, panting. The waist of his jeans, which had fit perfectly when he bought them six months ago, dug painfully under the balcony of his stomach.  The button strained at the hole that confined it, the fly gaping to expose the zipper.

In both cases, we’re trying to give the reader some idea of Fred as a character.  Here you see the obvious difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ — showing takes significantly more space than telling.  In showing, though, we have the opportunity to pull out wonderful facts about Fred and his personality that we might otherwise skip.  There’s more emotion, more visceral description.  We know Fred better as a person.

Yet while my preference decidedly leans toward the show version, the tell is more efficient.  There are times when you want to tell, not show.  That ‘show’ paragraph, in the midst of an action scene, would slow things down considerably and hurt the narrative flow.  The ‘tell’ gives the reader the necessary information without any fuss.

I would tell you that when you have the opportunity to display a character’s personality by seeing that person “in movement” and doing something, take that opportunity rather than just giving the reader exposition that simply states the facts.  But… just as you want to vary the rhythm of your prose, you also want to vary the rhythm of your characterization.

It shouldn’t be “Show, don’t Tell.”  It should be “Show, but sometimes Tell.”

There you have two of the seven strategies.  I’ll continue with this post next Friday.  In the meantime, let me know what you think of these two strategies in the comments.

Stephen Leigh, who also writes under the name S.L. Farrell, is a Cincinnati author who has published twenty-seven novels and many short stories, including several for the WILD CARDS series, edited by George RR Martin.  His newest novel is IMMORTAL MUSE (by Stephen Leigh), DAW Books, March 2014.  PW Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Leigh seamlessly inserts his two immortals into history, playing with actual people and events to deliver beautifully-rendered glimpses of different eras. Leigh strikes the perfect balance between past and present, real and imagined.”

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13 comments to Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part I

  • Thanks for this! I tend to agree that the physical aspects of the character are the least important–especially in my own head. I know what my characters look like, but more than that, I know what they FEEL like in my head. What there presence is. The exception, of course, is when the appearance is important: a scar here, a different colored eye there, that actually connect to the character and aren’t just there to make him or her not look like everyone else.

    And your “show and tell” is great. I need to work on showing more.

  • Thanks, pea_faerie! FWIW, I was describing myself from a few years back in the “show and tell” — when I took a couple years’ hiatus from aikido. I put on a good thirty pounds and inches of waist size, and realized I needed to get back to regular exercise because walking up a couple flights of stairs was exhausting. I’m still on the overweight side and could stand to shed several pounds, but I’m in better shape. 🙂

  • Show & Tell. You know, I beat myself up when I don’t show something, but now I realize that I can just choose which approach is better at the time. It’s amazing how such simple advice eludes me without someone to teach it.

  • @DeepForestGreen — we’re ALL still learning, so don’t beat yourself up too much. But yes, I feel like you should choose whatever approach works best for the flow of your narrative at that point. Maybe it’s a long “show,” maybe it’s a quick “tell” just to get the info to the reader, or maybe it’s somewhere between the two.

    Like a lot of people, I heard “Show, Don’t Tell” early and often from teachers, and I think it’s a disservice, as most “absolutes” tend to be. Things in writing are rarely entirely one pole or the other.

  • I’m so glad to read “Sow, but sometimes tell.” Sometimes I find myself getting bogged down in the details of showing when it’s really not necessary. Of course, knowing exactly when telling is okay can be tricky!

  • @SiSi — I’m still working on that myself!

  • If it shows you how far the reader’s picture can dominate the writer’s description — there’s one character who, through a dozen books, the author repeatedly emphasizes he’s BLOND and FAIR. But in my mind’s eye, he’s black-haired and swarthy. I’ve tried to deliberately reimagine him, and it just doesn’t work. It not only doesn’t stick, it causes a huge speedbump in my reading.

    I finally gave up and let him be dark, never mind what the author says.

  • Razziecat

    Another post to bookmark and come back to 🙂 One thing I need to work on is describing a character without doing that laundry-list of physical features. I like to have their appearance set in my own head, and it’s easier to just go with a simple physical description; but it’s their actions, their emotions, the things they want and fear and struggle with, that define who they are, and make them real enough that I (and readers) can “see” them; and that takes more effort, but is so worth it! 😀

  • @Reziac — Every reader’s vision of the character is going to be unique (sometimes, as you point out, even at odds with the author’s own description). I think your response was perfectly right; go with the image in your own head!

    @Razziecat — Yeah, the laundry list description really means very little. What matters is what’s *inside* the character — that’s the part of the characterization you want to get into the reader’s mind.

  • The only exception to the laundry list I have seen is the romance genre. Describing the hero and heroine in this genre is important – what do they find attractive in each other, height relation between them, etc. The visual aspect is as important as the internal aspect … in the first chapter. Because it needs to be quick, the usual manner in this genre is tell, don’t show, hair color, eye color, height and what the weight looks like (muscles, build, etc).

    And I think that is important in every genre fiction to let the reader know early, don’t wait half-way through the book to start describing your character. If you are going to give a description (and you don’t always need to), it needs to be done quickly or the reader feels betrayed by the mental image not matching the described image.

  • @Erin — I’d agree. In general, the first time you introduce a character (especially a main one) is the time to give some description. Good point about the romance genre, which is not one I’m familiar with.

  • Wholeheartedly agree with characters being the most important element, but what about the bad guys? When I’m writing fantasy my big quandry is how much I personalise the adversaries. I don’t mean those working on behalf of the *big bad* but the primary one/s. Is it better to have a fully fleshed, complete picture which your hero/es interact with fully? Or is there a case for having a looser, less detailed portrait? In Lord of the Rings (as the archetype of fantasy) we never get to see or hear directly from Sauron, do we? He’s always seen through the eyes of others and very much from a distance – it’s the results of what he does or instigates which defines him, isn’t it. And I think it’s rare to find a personalised overarching evil in fantasy. Where you get more personality, more detail, it seems to be when the adversaries are on a more human scale (even if they do have magical powers), or at least that’s the case within the scope of my reading.
    I’d love to know what you teach about creating the character of the bad guys!

  • @LinHutton — Well, there’s another whole blog post! 🙂 But the *short* answer is this: I don’t (personally) care for villains who are simply *evil*. To me, the antagonist thinks that he/she/it is actually the protagonist: in other words, the antagonist has an agenda; they don’t think of themselves as doing evil but as doing something that’s entirely necessary for one reason or another. In fact, they might even believe *they’re* the ones who are doing good and the other side that is mistaken. That’s why (again, for me personally), Sauron’s a lousy antagonist: in LOTR, we never really see Sauron as anything but the Great Big Bad, and (to me) that’s rather boring. Saruman, on the other hand, has a much more compelling story: here’s a person who was once the epitome of his type, who was looked up to and respected, and yet in the end chose the wrong path. Now *there’s* a story!

    In IMMORTAL MUSE, I have an antagonist who does terrible and awful things, and he does so because he derives sustenance from those acts. I look at him as an addict, with an addiction that, unfortunately, has only one possible cure. He’s doing what he *must* do in order to survive, and he understands that — but like most of us, he *does* want to survive. To that extent, the horror he commits is not entirely his fault.