Critique Technique, Part 12: Showing and Telling in Character Development

I’m late with this post so the Big Red Flag o’ Guilt is staring at me from the corner of my Outlook screen. But I have a good reason: I spent the weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus. By the time each day was done, my brain was full and knowledge was dribbling out of my ears and onto my shirt. Messy. Then I had a 90 minute drive to get home.

But if you’re anywhere near Tucson or even Arizona around Spring Break next year, you’ve GOT to make plans to come to the TFoB. It’s free—that’s right, 100% free—and features well over 100 top-name presenters (this year’s line-up included T.C. Boyle, Richard Russo, Larry McMurtry, Diana Gabaldon, and Terry Brooks), dozens of seminars and workshops, book-signing events, a food court featuring local restaurants, and more than 200 vendor and information booths.

Did I mention that it’s all FREE, including parking?

Wow. I mean—WOW!

End of plug.


“Show, don’t tell.” We writers get told that all the time. ALL the time. (Well, except recently, when blogger Jael McHenry suggested “flipping the script” on Writer Unboxed.)

The thing is, neither telling nor showing are wrong, per se. What’s “wrong” is relying on either one too much, or using one technique where the other would be more effective. This is true in character development and revelation as much as it is in any other aspect of writing. As a reviewer, that’s what you should be looking for in someone else’s writing.

Let’s take a few examples. Carol’s relationship with boyfriend Bob is everything she hoped and dreamed it would be. She gets all tingly and happy whenever she thinks of him. He calls her every day, even when they’ve been together. He gives her little gifts and compliments. She’s thinking he’s “the one.” Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Bob tells her he thinks they need some time apart; he needs to reevaluate the relationship. How does Carol react?

If the author then writes, “Carol was angry” and stops there, that’s “telling,” but it tells us next to nothing. If the author writes, “Carol was angry. Her feelings were hurt. She didn’t understand how Bob could be so loving, then want to dump her. She felt confused and depressed.” That’s all “telling,” too. Yes, it provides more information, but did you notice how much emotional distance there is between you, the reader, and Carol? The writing is clinical, impersonal, analytical. You don’t much care about Carol’s situation. Tough noogies, Carol, you’re thinking. Next story.

“Showing” character means having the character’s actions and behaviors illustrate their mood, personality, etc. Let’s go back to Carol and Bob. This time, the author writes:

Carol slammed the phone down. “You motherfucking son of a bitch,” she screamed. “You’re not going to do that to me.” She stomped down the hall to her armory, where she wrenched open the display case containing her knife collection and pulled down her favorite machete. Stroking the sharpened edge with her thumb, she crooned, “It’s been a long time since you tasted flesh, hasn’t it, baby?” She slammed the blade home in its scabbard, wrapped the belt around her waist, and yanked the catch tight before turning her attention to her gun safe. Which one? she wondered. The pump-action shotgun or the full-auto AK-47?

That’s showing, all right—you can feel the rage—but is it too much showing, or the right kind?

Now, it’s possible that either of these examples could be fine, depending on what the author was trying to do. But if these examples represent what the writer does every time she wants to present some aspect of a character’s personality, that’s a problem.

Then there’s the other aspect of “telling” personality traits that is legitimate and often valuable: when one character describes another’s personality or behavior. There are lots of ways this can be done. The character doing the describing can:

  • Tell the character being described what he perceives her to be: “You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in his thoughts: Alice is such a goofball, Ted thought.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in narrative: Ted thought Alice was a goofball.
  • Describe the character to another character: “Alice is such a goofball,” Ted told Bob.

Adding an illustrative action by Ted (“You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice, giving her an affectionate hug.) then adds more depth by showing an aspect of the relationship between Ted and Alice, plus one of Ted’s character traits.

These are all direct methods of showing or telling characterization. There are also more subtle, indirect ways. The author can:

  • mention something the character owns,
  • describe the place they live in (not only whether it’s a mansion, say, or a cardboard box, but how that place is furnished and kept),
  • describe how they dress and keep themselves (clean or dirty, satin or jeans),
  • identify who they associate with,
  • describe what they do for a living,
  • describe the pets they keep (or don’t),
  • describe a habit, tic, or trait they have, and so on.

Many of these methods are “showing by telling”: the author is showing the characteristic by telling the reader how it manifests itself in the character’s life.

To summarize, then, neither “showing” nor “telling” a character’s trait is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is whether such showing or telling is the most effective way to present that trait and whether the author relies too much on one technique or the other.

Here are some questions for you to ask as you review a work:

  • Is the author relying too much on one way of presenting character traits?
  • Is the way the author presents a trait or characteristic appropriate to her intent, so far as I can tell, in calling attention to it at this moment in the piece?
  • Is showing or telling this trait the most effective way to do it? Would using a different technique be better? If so, what?

What cues do you use to evaluate how well the author is presenting a character?


TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.