The Writing Manual: Characterization

The aim of this section is to show how you can use back-story to dictate the way your character’s act in any given situation. The more complex your back-story, the more realistic your characters and the more likely your readers are to fully engage with your novel.

The logical place to begin is with your novel’s characters. The fundamental principle behind the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is that a story is told via actions and dialogue. The role of the narrator is to provide description, not explanation. The ultimate aim is for the story to happen inside a reader’s mind, not on the page of the book. Only by lifting the story off the page and into the reader’s mind will the reader remain engaged and interested.

Yet, there a deeper principle is at work.

It is the understanding that emotionally truthful characters are defined by a reader’s interpretation of their words and actions, NOT by a narrator’s guidance. This is a wordy sentence, but we’ve already touched on this concept. Let me explain a little. When you write characters that act and speak in a way that is true to real emotion (fear, happiness etc.), it is the meaning the reader gives to these words and actions that matter, not what the narrator TELLS the reader to think and feel.

It is the understanding that any story is capable of stirring deep, universal emotions within the reader.

In other words, it is the writer’s job to SHOW the reader what the characters are doing via actions and dialogue. The writer must not TELL the reader the reasons behind the words and actions via narrative summary.

So how does this principle apply to characters?

Again, we are faced with a situation in which complex theory is actually applied via simple writing technique. To discover this technique we must first delve a little deeper into characters.

All major characters within a novel will consist of three essential components:

    1. Internal voice.
    2. External voice.
    3. Actions.

Internal voice is the ‘sound track’ within a character’s mind. This is their combination of beliefs, experience and up bringing. This is the moral compass (or lack of) that will influence the way they interact within the physical world.

External voice is simply the words that come out of a character’s mouth. Actions are just that, actions. This is the way in which a character will react to an event. The magic comes when we bring all three elements together.

It is the difference between a character’s internal dialogue, their external dialogue and their actions, which breathes life into your story. In short, real people say one thing and do another. 

Internal Voice

All characters (and real people for that matter) have a set of unspoken beliefs, which are a combination of all their life experiences. This is the voice inside their head that not only provides a constant dialogue, but will also ‘influence’ a character’s reaction in any given situation. These ‘thoughts’ are unconscious.

For example…

Perhaps your main character was brought up in a family environment that teaches them Chinese people were dishonest and could not be trusted. As your character has grown, they may have gone on to intellectually understand that this

belief is wrong, but it is ingrained and lies dormant. This latent racist attitude makes up part of the character’s internal voice. They may be consciously aware that this view is racist. They may even consider themselves not to be a racist. In fact, in everyday life they probably say and do things that demonstrate to the world that they are not, in fact, racist. However, in any given situation, involving interaction with a Chinese person, the character will be influenced, sub-consciously, by their internal voice. The character would, probably, not say, ‘I distrust Chinese people’. However, they would interact in a way, perhaps subtly (or not so subtly), different from a character that did not hold the same beliefs.

You can see here how the back-story for this character can have them saying and believing they are not racist, but when confronted by a situation with Chinese people, they can act in a way that shows them to be racist.

You say one thing and do another.

All of the characters in your book need a well-defined internal voice. You must map out the key influences on your characters. Therefore, the starting point to creating an internal voice for your characters is to create a character’s back-story. The back-story is the character’s life history. It is a summary of all the key events and modes of thought, which influence them in a major way. In its simplest form, this is a list of beliefs the character holds, and, perhaps, the events that created these beliefs. Only by understanding a character’s background can a writer then begin to develop the character’s internal voice. The more complex the writer’s understanding of a character’s background, the more realistically can they invent the character’s personality.

This process can be very daunting for a writer, but it is important to understand that characters don’t need to appear fully formed in your mind. Many experienced writers will start the writing process by jotting down a few notes about a character and their major influences. They will decide on the character’s main views on the world and build a broad picture of the character. Some writers like to find photos and images to represent the character. Some think of real people. Ultimately, the end goal is always the same, to try and get ‘inside the head’ of the character. As the story develops writers will elaborate and expand on this picture. They will add in smaller details, allowing the character to grow and breathe.

This ‘character profile’ is an essential part of the writing process but here’s the big secret… it’s a secret. The character profile is created for your eyes only. It is NOT part of the novel.

Once you have spent time and effort in creating a character profile you will face temptation. It must be overcome. Under no circumstances can you share the character profile with your writer.

You will feel the temptation to TELL the reader the character’s internal thought process and back-story. You will want to explain to the reader why a character is acting in a certain way.

Let’s face it, you’ll want to show off and TELL the reader why your writing is so clever.

If you do – YOU LOSE!

You must resist… At no point should the internal voice of your character spill out onto the page. The internal voice is for you and your character. It is a secret the must not be shared.

YOU, the writer, must understand the reasoning behind every word and action of your characters, but you must never explain this reasoning to the reader.

The ultimate goal is to create a space between the character and the reader. You want your characters to speak and act in a way that is both truthful and logical, but never explained by the narrator. It is in this space that the reader will fill in his or her own understanding of the character. They will, instinctively, search to understand the character. (Remember what was said in the opening sections. Your brain is trained to give meaning to words and actions, it just can’t resist.)

This forces the reader to engage, to become part of the story. As their understanding of your characters grows, via their words and actions, the reader will start to gain a deeper meaning. It is this deeper, emotional truth, which will lift your novel to the next level.

The internal voice is the writer’s secret weapon. It is the tool that you will use to bring the character to life.

It’s your Dr. Frankenstein’s bolt of lightening.

Yet the space you create between actions and meaning is dark and fragile. By exposing this internal voice to the light of the narrative, the magic is broken. As soon as a reader is TOLD how a character acts, the reader is pushed onto the back foot. They no longer need to work it out. They no longer need to fill in the gaps. Their brains can shut down.

Each time you TELL the reader a character is happy or sad, rather than SHOW via actions, the reader disengages a little more.

Each time you TELL the reader a nugget of the back-story via the narrator, and not in dialogue, the reader is pushed away.

Each time you give into temptation and explain, the reader starts to turn off.

If a narrator is explaining the internal voice then the reader is instantly passive. They are left in a position where they no longer need to ‘lean into’ the story. They can sit back and let the story come to them. This reduces the space between the character and the reader, and no room is left for the reader’s mind to create its magic.

External Voice

We’ve seen that internal voice is a character’s thought pattern, the internal beliefs that drive a character’s words and actions. External voice is less complex and is simply the words a character speaks.

However, it is not quite that simple.

The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is a process in which a writer removes the ‘story’ from narrative summary and, instead, tells the story via words and actions. It is worth a mention that I am not suggesting that writers stop using narrative summary. I am not even suggesting that writers stop putting character’s thoughts in the narrative summary, all I am saying is that a writer must use the narrative summary with care and consideration. Since no back-story can be dumped into the narrative, dialogue is suddenly very important. It is the only way in which you can pass the plot and back-story to the reader.

External voice, or dialogue, now becomes a writer’s most important tool.

So… how do you know what a character will say in any given situation?

To understand the best way to write dialogue you must start to see conversation in a new light. You must see dialogue as an exchange between characters with a clearly defined purpose. However, it remains important that dialogue has a realistic feel. You need to be writing conversation that could have actually happened.

In essence, dialogue is as a string of interactions.

One character says something, another character reacts… and so on.

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

‘Hi,’ Bill said. [Reaction]

Sometimes you will have a character choose to not react verbally or they may react physically. This is all part of the action/reaction sequence.

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

Bill stared at John. [Reaction]

Or…

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

Bill smiled and waved. [Reaction]

Once you have set up your characters in an action/reaction sequence, your next job is to decide what they will say.

There are actually three types of dialogue:

  1. Dialogue that makes sense for the scene.
  2. Dialogue that moves the plot forward.
  3. Dialogue that fills in back-story.

Let’s consider these in order.

The first is what makes sense for the scene. This is the natural speech pattern of the character in reaction to the events in the current scene.

For example, if a character is introduced to a person they have never met and the person says, ‘Hello’, then your character will reply with an appropriate comment, probably, ‘Hello’.

This is also dialogue that is reaction to an event in the scene. For example, if the scene sees the main character buying a present for his wife. His wife would react when she is given the present.

The second type of dialogue is what needs to be said for the plot. Since you are unable to move the plot forward via narrative summary, you must use events and conversation to tell your story. This means that, at times, you will need certain characters to say things to move the plot forward.

For example, let’s say you need to establish that your main character, let’s call him John, again, has a sister. This is an important plot point. You can just have the narrator TELL the reader that John has a sister. You will need to add this into the dialogue.

The dialogue could go something like this:

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.

‘You order a taxi?’ His voice tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ John said.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to here. The driver leaned over again.

‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said.

‘Ahh…’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Thanks, I am waiting for my sister.’

‘Ok,’ the taxi driver said and pulled out of the car park.

The key here is that the plot point (John has a sister) has been passed to the reader in a realistic manner. This is a conversation that could have actually happened. The result is that the reader is SHOWN that John has a sister.

The final type of dialogue is what needs to be said for the back-story. Since we are unable to pass back-story via the narrative, dialogue is the only outlet. We have seen that a character’s back-story is not just events important to the plot (e.g. John has a sister), but also ideals and beliefs that may influence the way a character speaks (e.g. John is scared of dogs). Both of these elements will have an impact on the dialogue between your characters. However, since dialogue needs to be realistic in nature, this is not always that easy.

If you just have a character start talking about something that does not fit naturally in a scene, then the reader will smell a rat. They will see what you are doing and the magic is broken. One of the challenges that you face is to create credible scenes to pass back-story to the reader via dialogue. This is, actually, a more common problem than you think. One reason that many detective stories feature a sidekick is to allow the main character to ‘discuss’ the case without any additional content. Think about it, the writer needs to pass a vital bit of back-story, what better way than to have the sidekick tell the main character about a nearly missed anomaly picked up in an autopsy.

The pragmatic reality is that you will find yourself writing scenes with the sole purpose of passing back-story. Old friends from the past will show up just so you have an excuse to talk about the main character’s tough childhood and alcoholic mother, dinner parties will pop up so you can talk about a piece of new government legislation that is relevant to the plot or cars will breakdown just so a character can talk about the mechanical skills he learned in the army.

For example, imagine you needed to let the reader know that your main character had attended university. You would not drop this into the narration; instead you would include the fact in the dialogue of a scene. However, this is not easy. Think about your own life. How many situations can you think of where you would talk about your education? I am guessing not that many. This probably means that you will need to write a scene just to pass the back-story. Perhaps, your character meets an old university friend for coffee. This would then give you the perfect excuse to write a scene with the freedom to say just about anything you wished about the university days, but via dialogue.

Having mastered the concept of using dialogue to not only build a plot, but also pass back-story, there’s one additional concept to consider, and that is the influence of the internal voice.

As we have established the internal voice is the beliefs and thought process of the main character. It is the sub-conscious thinking, which influences all the nuances of your character’s life. It will also dictate how they speak and how they react to certain situations. For example, a character scared of dogs, who is asked to take a friend’s dog for a walk, will react differently to a character who loves dogs.

When writing any dialogue, be it to fit in a scene, move forward the plot or pass back-story, you must always consider the roll the character’s internal voice will play on the words that they actually say. A character’s internal voice will influence how characters react and the types of words and phrases they use.

In the example we gave when discussing internal voice, we suggested the main character’s internal voice was telling them to distrust Chinese people. We have suggested that this may be a subtle influence, one of which the character is unaware. Remember, we are not saying the character is a racist, but holds a slightly skewed view.

Let’s go back to the taxi scene and re-write it with this internal latent racism in mind. It might go something like this…

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.

‘You order a taxi?’ His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ John said, shuffling back from the car.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again.

‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said. ‘I am sure.’

‘Ahh…’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?’ There was a pause. ‘It doesn’t mater. I am waiting for my sister, she’ll be hear any moment.’

‘Ok,’ the taxi driver said and pulled out of the car park. John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the number plate.

Here we have added a physical action with him moving back from the car. We have also added verbal reaction with him questioning the driver’s right to pick up a passenger. Finally, we have John noting the number plate. These small changes play no part in the over all plot. However, what they do is add ‘texture’ to the character. In this situation, the reader will probably pick up on the subtle behaviour of the character. The reader’s brain will instinctively try to work out why the character is acting in the way they are, and start to build their own story about the character.

The words and actions are triggers for the reader. They create a space between the reader and the character, and force the reader to dive into that space as they contemplate why he would react in that way. The character may say he’s not a racist, and may even believe this to be true, but his words and actions in this scene suggest otherwise. This paradox excites the reader.

The reader is pulled into the story and forced to engage. They are becoming an active part as they try to understand the character and the way he reacts.

Actions

As we have seen, The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology means that you are unable to rely on narrative summary to tell their story. Instead, you must look for other, more engaging, ways to connect with the reader. In the last section we saw that dialogue was one piece of this jigsaw, in this section we turn our attention to how you can use actions to help build engagement.

The granular structure of any novel is simple:

Events occur, characters react to the events.

However, how a character reacts to any given event can be as much a clue to their back-story as any dialogue.

The way in which a character acts is based on three things:

  1. Common sense.
  2. The plot.
  3. The character’s internal voice (which will reflect back-story).

This is a same pattern as the approach we took with the dialogue. Some events will demand a common sense response. For example – the phone rings, your character answers the phone. Other events will be part of the plot. For example,  the killer starts to run away; your main character chases him. However, sometimes, the reaction will be based on the internal voice. For example, a dog barks, the character jumps.

Let me give you a more detailed example…

If we cycle back to John, we are now starting to build a profile for the character. We know he is afraid of dogs, and why. We also know he was brought up to mistrust Chinese people and this is showing in the way he speaks. We saw this in a past example when John’s internal voice influenced the way he reacted to the taxi driver. In this example, we will mess with John a bit more by introducing a dog.

Here’s the basic scene, with no internal influence:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon and with most people at work, and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling the zip of his coat all the way up to his chin. Ahead of John, perhaps twenty paces, a large black, mangy looking dog stepped from between two parked cars. John walked on, looking left and right for a possible owner. As the dog passed they exchanged a brief look. John walked on in one direction, the dog in the other.

So, the event is a dog appearing from between two parked cars. John’s reaction is, well, minimal.

Now… let’s rewrite the scene but with John’s internal voice in play. We know John is scared of dogs and therefore his reaction will be different:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon and with most people at work, and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling the zip of his coat all the way up to his chin. Ahead of John, perhaps about twenty paces, a large black, mangy looking dog stepped from between two parked cars. John stopped. He took a small step backwards before looking up and down the street. There was no traffic. The dog seemed to ignore John, padding in his direction. John strode across the road, leaving the dog to pace its own way in the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the street.

In this example we are SHOWING the reader that John is scared of dogs. There’s no narrative mention (or explanation) of this fear, instead it is reflected in John’s reaction.

John is acting in the way that someone who is scared of dogs will react. The reader’s brain, which is programed to see meaning in actions, will try to work out why John has acted the way that he has. The reader’s brain will give John’s actions a meaning. However, at this point the reader doesn’t have enough information to complete the picture. They will however, become engaged as they ‘lean into’ John’s character.

The important aspect of this approach is that John’s reaction leaves the reader with a small clue about John’s past. The reader now knows that John has reacted to the presence of a dog. This may be part of a bigger jigsaw that is left for the reader to piece together; it may be a critical plot point or may simply be the writer adding texture to the story. It doesn’t really matter from a technical viewpoint, since John is now a more realistic character.

Once again, by not explaining, via the narrator, we are creating a distance between the reader and the characters. They can see how John is reacting and are forced to ‘lean into’ the story. They must engage with John and start to build their own explanations. This is engagement and if done consistently will stop your reader becoming bored.

So must every splash of action contain influence from the internal voice?

The answer is well… yes, well… kind of.

Most action within a scene will be pretty straightforward. When deciding on how a character reacts to an event the first thing to do is decide what the common sense reaction would be. Having decided that, you need to work out if the reaction needs to differ, in order to fulfill the plot. Finally, having decided what the character should do, you now need to decide it the action is influenced, in any way, by their internal voice.

Therefore, the question to ask yourself, when writing any scene, is ‘how would the character react?’

The answer to this question will often take your character on a wonderful journey. You will find them doing things that are unexpected and exciting. They will surprise you… and the reader. Yet, most importantly, when writing with honesty your characters will come alive, not on the pages of your book, but in the mind of your readers.

Making it all Work

We’ve now looked at the role of internal voice, dialogue and actions in helping your reader to engage with your story. Let’s go back to our mate John and demonstrate how all three principles can be used in a short scene.

The fundamental concept of the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is that a writer must keep back-story and plot out of the narration. As I have driven home, including back-story in narration leaves the reader on the back foot and results in them becoming bored. Show, Don’t Tell solves this problem by forcing the reader to ‘lean into’ the book and work for the plot. This produces interest, keeps the reader active and sucks them into the book.

By not using narration to pass back-story, the writer is forced to look to other methods to tell the story. This is where characterization comes into play. 

As discussed a writer has three aspects to any character:

  1. Their internal voice.
  2. Their external voice.
  3. Their actions.

The internal voice is the writer’s secret weapon and is the way the character thinks about the world. The external voice is the character’s conversation and can be used to pass back-story and plot. Finally, the way a character reacts to any given situation provides a subtle, though powerful, method to providing reader’s with clues about the character’s back-story.

The use of internal voice, external voice and actions is often called characterization.

There is one final aspect of characterization we are yet to address. You will often hear readers talking about ‘three dimensional characters’. This is one of those terms that has no real, definable meaning. Readers (and reviewers) who talk about ‘three dimensional characters’ will often mean characters that are realistic or true to life. The problem you face is that you are telling a story, not writing a documentary. By their very nature characters in a novel are not real people. The goal of a novel is to stimulate emotion in readers and to tap into some deeper truth. This is done with characters that mimic the real world in a way that tricks the reader’s brain into believing they are real.

Luckily, you can use the characterization methodology set out in this book to create ‘realistic’ characters.

How often have you heard a person say one thing, but then act in a completely different way?

Or, how often have you heard a person say something; believe it fully, but then act in a way that contradicts?

Or how often have you said one thing, believed it to be true and then found yourself acting in a way that contradicts your earlier statement?

The simple answer is that people often say and act in ways that are opposed. That’s what makes people, people.

This is also what makes your character three-dimensional! It means that if you are going to create realistic characters they need to think, speak and act in ways that is, at times, contradictory.

The good news (actually it is brilliant news) is that you already have the tool sin place to do this with little additional effort. You are going to use your character’s back-story to create situations in which your characters react in a unexpected, though logical (if only to you) manner.

Let’s go back to John for an example:

John walked into the cramped three-bedroom house carrying a large cardboard box with a massive pink ribbon bowed at the top. He found his sister leaning on the doorframe of the open back door, the final drags of a cigarette in her hand. When she saw John, she flicked the cigarette butt into the garden, and then turned to him, her face beaming with a smile.

“John. Is that for me?’ she said nodding at the box. John smiled back, pushing the box onto the kitchen table, its awkward weight evident.

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked about in an exaggerated motion before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.

“You’d better open it quick, its not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

She danced from foot-to-foot as she tugged at the pink ribbon. As soon as the ribbon fell away the box lid forced its own way open with an explosion of black fur, ears, eyes and nose. John’s sister scooped up the dog.

‘A puppy. I love him.’

So John’s bought his sister a dog. Really? What’s going on! We know John hates dogs, so this makes no sense. John’s acting irrationally.

Or is he?

Well… It is all a matter of viewpoint.

Remember, this is an example of characterization. The point here is that people do strange things. They often think/say one thing and do another. People do things that make no sense, it is what makes people, people. It is what will make your characters interesting and three-dimensional.

It is OK, in fact, desirable, that your characters do things that make no sense to the reader. That’s the point. Though characters do things that make no sense to the reader, they should make perfect sense to the writer. A character should surprise a reader, but they must never surprise the writer.

So here’s a little secret about John and his sister, which you, the reader, don’t know, because me, the writer, haven’t told you…

When they were younger, John’s sister had always wanted a dog, but because of John’s fear it was never an option for the family. Fast forward. John’s sister has just bought her first house and is setting up a new home. John had always felt guilty about the whole dog thing and now seemed the perfect time to make amends. John hates dogs, but he loves his sister more.

This is actually back-story. It was part of the character profile created for John. It therefore influences John’s internal voice. John has two elements to his back-story that are relevant to this scene:

  1. John hates dogs.
  2. John loves his sister.

So… whilst John may talk and act in a way that is influenced by his hatred of dogs, he ALSO talks and acts in a way that is influenced by his love for his sister. In this case John’s love trumps his hate.

The result is that John’s actions do make sense – to the writer. They, however, remain a mystery to the reader. The reader is forced to engage with John and build their own rationale for his actions.

The result?

John is three-dimensional.

Chapter 3: Engaging Your Reader >>