At my writers’ group last night, we reviewed two pieces that suffered from variations of the same flaw: trying to portray characters by having the narrator tell you all about them. Both pieces were first person, though one narrator was describing himself and the second was describing other people in the scene.

They were all intriguing characters, with complex personalities and the little quirks that flush a character out. You could tell that the authors knew these characters and knew what information about them they needed to convey. Unfortunately, even as interesting as these characters were, the pieces we read tonight fell flat. Why is that?

It’s that old writers’ axiom rearing it’s head: show don’t tell.

Instead of giving us a list of the characters’ defining attributes (even lists illustrated with example behaviors), the authors should have shown us the characters in action – speaking, doing, acting and reacting. Characters who act create much more vivid impressions than characters presented as static summaries, for a couple of reasons.

Pan and Zoom Storytelling

First of all, isn’t it more interesting to watch something happening as opposed to being told about it happening?

Think of it this way: remember how much attention Ken Burns documentary The Civil War received (way back in the 90s)? He revolutionized the documentary framework by using actors to read historic documents dramatically, giving voices to the characters of the past, in effect bringing them to life.

He also used panning and zooming over photographs, paintings and other historic images to bring them to life, to give them movement, to make dynamic that which would otherwise be static.1

These two simple techniques helped bring history alive in a way that captured the country’s attention, and made it the most-watched documentary of its time. Since then, new documentaries have gone even further in their a attempts to bring history to life–to put the viewer in the scene–using costumed actors to play out key scenes in the historical drama. Wouldn’t you rather learn history this way, by watching George Washington, or Saladin, or Ghengis Kahn in action, instead of listening to a teacher rattle off a bunch of dates and other facts?

Let the Reader Be the Judge of Character

The second reason to put your characters into action right from the start is that it requires the participation of your reader. If you provide a summary description of who a character is, there’s nothing for me, as a reader, to do except watch events unfold.

But if you skip the summary and just let the character do and speak for themselves, then the reader has to start making judgments (just like in real life) about what kind of person the character is.

This involves the reader more deeply in the story, because they are, in effect, helping to create the story – or at least their experience of the story. I believe one of the reasons mystery novels are endlessly popular is because the reader gets involved in the story, by trying to piece together the clues and solve the mystery themselves.

But no matter what genre you’re writing, you can create the same sort of involvement by letting a reader interpret characters for themselves. Every character is a little mystery in themselves, aren’t they? Trying to figure out what makes a character tick will make readers care more about the character, and ultimately care more about the story the characters inhabit, which is what your goal should be.

And I’ve got one final reason why you should put your characters in action right from the start.

Start Your Story as You End it

Would you be satisfied if, at the climax of a novel, you were given a summary of everything that happened? No, probably not. You want to be right there, in the moment, experiencing what the characters are experiencing. The same holds true for the beginning of your novel.

Go into the scene, let your characters act right from the start.

Summary descriptions of characters can be a useful tool for your own use, helping to clarify all the important details you need for a convincing character. But once it’s written, put it aside. Let your characters get out on stage and put them in action. Set the scene, then give them something to say. Give them something to do. Give them someone to talk to. Let them start participating in whatever you’ve got plotted for them.

Of course, once you let them start speaking for themselves, you may discover they don’t want to do what you’ve got planned after all, but that’s another topic…

This post was originally published in 2008.

  1. I thought this reference might be outdated, but then I remembered that the iMovie app includes a “Ken Burns” mode for turning still photos into a movie.

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