Friday, January 13, 2017

5 Ways of Presenting Character: Authorial Interpretation

Today, in the last in my series on ways of presenting character, we will talk about authorial interpretation or simply, as an author, telling your readers what the character is like. The old writing adage is "Show, Don't Tell," and the vast majority of the time, I absolutely agree with this adage. When you tell your readers what a character is like, you prevent the reader from experiencing the character. If I simply tell the readers a character is short, they don't experience that shortness and it doesn't have much effect on them. It is almost always better to say something like, "Susan had to stand on her tiptoes to see over the counter." With this second statement, we understand just how short Susan is and experience some of her frustration with it. Neither of which happens with the statement, "Susan is short."

Her hair's not red, but you get the picture.
However, like all rules, there are times to break the "Show, Don't Tell" rule. Telling allows you to convey a lot of information in a short amount of time. This can be helpful in introducing a character's appearance, such as when Brigitta is introduced in The Ghost in Exile. I tell the reader: "Her red hair confirmed her nationality. She wore a low-cut, red bodice trimmed with black lace and an extremely short red skirt." It isn't complicated. The reader simply learns what she looks like. The reader doesn't care about Brigitta at this point, and I don't need them to. It is The Ghost's emotions the reader needs to feel, not Brigitta's. Later, I do more showing with Brigitta, and the reader comes to care about her, but making the reader care about Brigitta at this point would detract from the scene. The reader's emotions need to be focused on The Ghost, not her.

This type of telling is especially useful for minor characters, who are needed for the plot, but who the reader never really gets to know. Later in the novel, Brigitta defends a tavern server from an overly aggressive customer. I tell the reader: "Halle was a marginal fighter, and he was slightly the worse for drink. He also spent too much energy trying to taunt his opponent." This isn't going to make the reader connect with Halle, but I don't need them to. It isn't even desirable. Halle is only present in the novel for this one short scene and simply plays the role of Brigitta's opponent. 

While simply telling can be useful, you need to be careful about relying on it too often. When you tell the reader something, it doesn't make them feel anything. They don't make a connection to the character, and it doesn't make them care about the character. 

Writing rules are useful, but don't be slaves to them. Understand the rule, and you will understand when it is better to break it than follow it.

Post your favorite example of telling in the comments.