- Reveal your character through dialogue and actions taken by them, not through a narrative description.
Wait, this looks familiar, doesn’t it? This looks a lot like our earlier discussion on narrative summary versus action scenes. Well, that’s because it is pretty similar. In fact, most facts about writing well all go back to that initial rule of thumb to show instead of tell. Characters are no different. I can easily tell you that my character is lithe and strong, well-muscled and fit, standing eight feet tall and mighty of fist and at the drinking table. But it is more appropriate (and more powerful too) if I tell you about how he towered over the goblins, who fled before him, tripping over one another in their haste to get away. Ok, so I cheated a little. I told you that he towered over them, but he could have just been tall. The more descriptive and powerful part is when the goblins fled from him, tripping over one another in their haste to get away. You learn a lot more about the character from that.
- Eliminate all dialogue that exists only to put a point across
Dialogue should be natural and flow well into and out of the scene. What is said by your characters should fit with their personality and with the situation, not as an exposition of an element or point that you, as the author, want to get across. Would a traveler, cloaked and hooded, naturally walk into a bar and inquire of the local barman about the state of politics of the local city? Maybe, but he’d most likely order a drink first, or perhaps some food. He might instead listen to the gossip of the other patrons, who quieted at his entrance, but now resumed their chatting in hushed whispers that nevertheless carried to where he sat at the bar. This might more naturally transition into a situation where a conversation with the barman might be more appropriate and fit within the natural flow of the situation and character. Naturally, most barmen are talkative, but usually they need to warm up to you first. 🙂 He’s not going to explain about the epic quest that your character can undertake with a party of other travelers until he’s sure that he is not about to be robbed by this complete stranger.
- Only include back-story “when” it is absolutely necessary to understand the story.
This one is hard for me. You spend hours, sometimes days or weeks, coming up with a character that is well-rounded, has a back-story, and to whom you can really relate. You want to talk about him. You want to show him off to your reader so that they can get to know him as well as you do. But think back to the last time you met someone. Did they drop their complete life story on you in the first meeting? No, they probably gave you a simple introduction and, over the course of the friendship you picked up bits and pieces of their history and put them together. I’ve been married to my wife for three years now, and I still learn new things about her almost daily. This is because she is not merely the aggregate of all her past experiences. She changes, learns new things, and develops new ideas over time, as does my perception of them and her. Let the reader get to know your character in the same way that they get to know anyone else they meet. Gradually, over time. Let their back-story come out as it becomes pertinent to the plot.
- Bottom Line
So, what’s the bottom line? Practice. Nothing gets better without applied, diligent effort. Practice will make you better. Perfect practice will make you perfect. Write and re-write. Allow yourself to get it wrong and try again until you get it right.