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Ways to Show a Character's Personality

All too 2 - closeup of a zipper on a jacketoften, novice writers make the mistake of telling us a character’s personality. Rather than tell her personality, the writer can more successfully raise reader interest by showing it – that is, inferring the character’s personality through a concrete detail.

Authors generally tell a character’s personality in one of four ways – motivations, emotions, thoughts, and age.

Motivational tells are when the author states why a character wants to do something. For example:

I decided to go out because I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

Rather than tell readers why a character is motivated to do something, instead show it. In the above example, simply have the character already going out – to a nightclub, a bar, a concert – and show them having a good time in contrast to them being alone. To wit:

I laughed as he twirled me around the dance floor. This sure beats watching a late show by myself, I thought.

Telling a character’s motivation usually sucks the tension out of a scene. Inferring motivation is preferable because once we leave readers without anything to ponder or determine, we reduce a story’s entertainment value. You usually can identify motivational tells as the words because, to and well are used.

Emotional tells give the emotion a character is feeling. An example is:

She enjoyed the long walk through the forest.

The emotion instead could be shown by describing the character’s body language, such as a facial expression or gesture, or by showing them doing something that infers their emotional state:

She whistled a happy tune as walking through the forest.

Showing rather than telling a character’s emotional state enrichens the story. It offers details that helps the reader better picture what is occurring.

Mental tells occur when the author summarizes a character’s thoughts. For example:

Jack had hoped for more, but all in all, it was a fair trade.

Rather than state he wanted more but ultimately found it acceptable, infer it:

Jack’s lips pressed tight, then after a moment he raised his hand and accepted it with a gentleman’s handshake.

Sometimes editors and writing instructors refer to mental tells as “internal tells.”

Age tells are when the author states the character’s age. Often writers think slipping in the age won’t harm the story:

Daniel was 13 years old.

It probably doesn’t hurt the tale, but such writing does feel clunky. Instead, the qualities of a young teen can be shown:

Daniel wondered if Missy was interested in anime, too, then as she headed his direction, he turned toward the lockers, hoping she wouldn’t see him or the big zit that somehow had grown into Mount Everest on his chin overnight.

A number of specific examples in the showing sample suggest that Daniel is a young teen – his interest in a girl and anime, the lockers indicating they’re in school, self-consciousness, and acne problems. Showing the qualities goes farther because it gives the character depth rather than hoping the reader shares with the author the same understanding of what a 13-year-old is like. 

Often the difference between great and so-so writing is the use of these many tells. Great writing lets the reader experience the character’s life. So-so writing summarizes it.

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