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Showing vs telling

Are there any examples about showing the audience both how a character looks like and their personality without doing too much of one and not enough of another? In my recent attempt of storytelling, I was made aware that I focused too much on physical description and did not show any of who the character is.
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Showing who a character is can be done in different ways, and a combination works best. Of course, what you do and how much you do may depend on the length of your story. You have more time with a novel, less time with a short story.

Here are some ways to show who a character is:

Actions. She can do things that reveal something about her character. Think about the ways you "read" other people by observing them in action. If you catch a cashier taking a large bill out of her register and stuffing it in her pocket, what does this tell you about her? If you see someone helping out someone else in need, what does this say? You don't have to go overboard in choosing how to present her. Maybe she takes a step out of her way to stomp on a spider; or, maybe she flinches back when she catches sight of a spider on the ground.

Clothing/appearance choices. I know you've already mentioned physical description, but this can go further to show something about a character. Is she always disheveled or is she always dressed primly without a crease or stray thread or speck of dirt? Does she wear lots of clothing with labels, expensive clothing, or not? Jewelry? Does she always have the same item on no matter what, like a brooch or special hat or....? Does her favorite t-shirt say, "I hate elves!"

Manner of speech/dialogue. Is her speech crude or polite? Does she always speak in a hurry, often out of breath, or does she carefully consider every word and speak slowly? Does she like to insult people, gossip about people, whine and complain? Does she use big words trying to sound smart? Maybe she actually is very smart and uses those words not realizing others don't have a clue what she's talking about. Does she constantly talk about who is leading the field in a sport this season? Does she seem to ignore what others are saying, full of her own ideas, or does she listen attentively and seem to see right through them?

Filter the narrative through the character's eyes. This is a fairly big one if your character is a point-of-view character. If you are writing first person or a close third person, you can offer observations in the character's voice that will reveal things about her. Example: Gerty approached the baker's door and stopped short of knocking. The man was an absolute lout and sometimes thought it appropriate to give her a pat on her rump as she was leaving. But her mistress had sent her to buy sweet rolls, and Lady Marvelle was ever so much sweeter to Gerty after she'd eaten sweet rolls. She knocked on the door and stood still, tense, waiting. No one answered.

Have others treat the character in a particular way. If every time someone greets her, they seem scared, this might tell you something about that character. If in group situations they seem to overlook her, this will tell you something. They can even say things to her like, "Gerty, pick up the pace! I don't know why you're always daydreaming when there's work to be done!" They can call her names, good or bad or familiar nicknames.

Have other characters tell stories about this character or describe the character to a third party. Example: "Last time Gerty went fishing, half the men in the village went out to watch her, the whole day. Let me tell you about it..." or "Don't mess with Gerty. She hates elves."
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I mentioned this as a off-topic thing in another thread here on the board, the Actual strong feminine lead thread. This was what I wrote there:

"...Think of how often you're describing a character. "Anna was a kind and considerate sister." But can you describe her kindness without using the word kind? Can you decribe these people without using personality adjectives? I will give it a shot... "My sister Anna was older than me, but she used to sit next to my bed, mend my stockings by candlelight and sing to me before I went to sleep. We didn't have a lot of money for candles, and I was scared of the dark, but my sister never blew out our nightstand candle before I was alseep. When I got older and the terror of darkness wasn't so great anymore, likely because Anna made me feel safe and cared for, she told me her secret. So that mom wouldn't know, if she finished mending stockings, she would tie the knot and just pull the remaining thread through. Just going through the motions, singing softly. Even today I like sewing, especially embroidery. It makes me feel at peace, like my mind slows down and there is this comforting silence that only has room for an occational thought. I hope that was what my sister felt way back then too."
Okay, so that was just to try to convey what a kind and considerate sister might do (positive traits). Describing isn't the same as giving it a name. If you dont' have room for this maybe at least come up with a couple of kind actions of Anna the sister might have done as part of her history." I don't know how successful my attempt was...

Description needs to be done right, and of course there isn't anything wrong with using descriptive words and adjectives, it's just that you're allowed to go creative on this. When you say "Anna was kind", you are just telling it. Things to do to instead could be to let the reader interpret the actions and dialogue of the characters, you could put your characters in situations where they need to make a choice or make a stand or anything that proves a little of who they are. Let your readers into the mind of your character and see the world through their eyes.


toujours gai, archie
There are jillions of examples. Pick up any great novel (not fantasy) and read the passage where the protagonist is introduced. The one that has always stuck in my mind is Lord Jim (by Joseph Conrad). Another favorite is Pierre Bezukhov, who makes a memorable entrance. At another extreme, watch how Chandler introduces us to Philip Marlowe for a fine lesson in how to indicate character when writing in the first person. Then watch how Mosley does it with Easy Rawlins.

There are lots of examples. 'Course, after reading those masters you might decide to take up something easier, like Sanskrit or microbiology.


Article Team
Showing vs. Telling is one of those tricky things. There isn't necessary a perfect balance. There's just what's right for your story. There are stories that Tell like a tattle tale and work perfectly fine. Part of it is also how you design your scenes. When you make a choice on how your story unfolds, it presents opportunities to "show" things about your characters, your world, etc.

Some very on the nose examples.

- Want to show hair color? Have a scene take place in a barbershop.

- Want to show a kid's weight? Have the kids on the playground call them "Fatty-Fatty two-by-four."

- Want to show a person is physically strong? Have them lift something very heavy but don't make them think it's heavy. "They tucked a 100lb bag of grain under each arm and headed to the truck."

Here's a link to a post I made on in another thread on show vs tell.


Hope it helps.
One thing you can do is pay attention to how movies show character without having to tell. Usually there's not a voice-over explaining what characters are like; you, the viewer, are left to see those characters in action, all their reactions to things and what they say, how they say it, their body language, and so forth. Pick your favorite movies and see what you can see.

Here's one of my favorite examples. Now, this one actually does provide a voice-over, which is telling not showing. But it does simultaneously show things. There's the one hobbit who is slack-jawed who picks the wax out of his ear and looks at it, and there's another at the moment of about to kiss his sweetheart, who has given her flowers but when she puckers up he stops to grab a cupcake on a passing tray. Then there are hobbits organizing kegs of ale and one who fills his cup and takes a drink even while carrying a heavy keg on his shoulder. Another group is then shown sitting around doing nothing but smoking long pipes. Samwise, who will be a main character, is shown gardening, and we learn from just seeing this that he loves gardening. These same things could be shown in a novel without a voice-over or telling.

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I suppose that, technically, Bilbo's being shown, also. The way he chuckles at his own characterization of hobbits. The voice-over may be a case of narrative voice, that I mentioned further above, a way to show something about Bilbo (in addition to giving more info about hobbits.) Later he'll be shown to panic when he doesn't know where the One Ring is, going through everything to furiously find it.
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What I agree with most from the above responses is VOICE. If it's your primary character, how they THINK tells so much about who they are, and can throw in spots of physical description. Also, how they SPEAK tells volumes about character, education, even in some cases- where they are from.


The whole story is in effect showing us what the character is like. We get to see how they react to certain situations and what they feel about it. So try to design the story so that along with the plot it gets the character into different situations that he has to react to, and also what they think in response to things they see.