Sunday, July 1, 2012

Editing: Characterization

In the last post, I wrote about how writers often explain things in a chunk of prose that they could demonstrate in a scene. This is the old "show, don't tell," mantra.

Another way that writers tend to "show" too much is when they are introducing characters. Most of us want to tell our audience everything about new characters as soon as they walk into a room. 

Why is this a problem? Why shouldn't we get our reader up to speed on a character as soon as possible? 

It's because part of the pleasure of reading is the act of discovery. The pleasure of meeting new people is to figure out who they are. Real people aren't going to hand you a typed paragraph explaining what they would do in a given situation. Everything if they did, it would probably be wrong. Characters shouldn't be introduced by paragraph, either, and for the same reason. 

Character descriptions are inherently less interesting than the character's actions or dialogue. These things can actually demonstrate qualities that would otherwise just be packed into a paragraph of prose like so many sardines. Let the characters flop like fish on a deck. THEN I'll know who they actually are. 

Also, if you give a reader a character introduction, the reader will then expect that character to behave according to that definition for the rest of the story. The reader will feel cheated or betrayed if the characters strays from this definition, and may flip back to the page when the character entered the story and say something like, "No, wait. It says here that she NEVER liked sardines! Why does she like them now?" 

In this scenario, the curtain has been drawn back and you, and that big faker Oz, have been exposed. Good writing doesn't call attention to itself (which is WHY you are supposed to kill your darlings--more on that in another post). Making your readers notice a character straying from the guidelines you set for him, is a way to call attention to yourself. 

So, how does a good writer introduce a character without committing any of the above sins? Here are some things to try:

1. Define the new character through the observations of another character.

Trudy hated to admit it, but Calvin was charming, witty, and slippery as an eel worming his way through an oil spill. She was glad she wasn't the one signing the apartment lease, but she worried that she might have to call Calvin to fix something in the future. She didn't like the idea at all.

2.  Use the character's dialogue or actions explain it all.

Benny walked past the ashtray and flicked his cigarette butt onto the hotel lobby carpet and walked away from it as it smoldered. He glared at the broken elevator as if it had timed its malfunction to his visit. Then he began hefting himself up the carpeted stairs, muttering "Mother*****r" every third step. 

3. Use the characters POV to describe something else. 

Ginny had never been in a cathedral before, so she stood in the middle of the nave, head tilted so far back her mouth hung open, like she was drinking from the streams of colored light pouring from the windows. There was nothing like this in Eastern Oregon. She dropped her backpack onto the floor and was instantly embarrassed by the clatter, so she plopped into the nearest pew and pretended to pray,

When you introduce a character, you don't have to give up all the goodies at once. The reader just needs to know enough about him or her to get us started. Notice, I didn't give physical descriptions in the above examples, but I bet you have a picture in your head for each of them. I would further wager that your pictures are pretty close to what I have in my head. 

Your prompt:  Find a spot in your writing where a new character is introduced via a chunk of descriptive prose. Re-write the prose using one of the three options above. 


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