Storyville: Revealing Character
You’ve certainly all heard about the concept of “showing, not telling.” Basically, what this concept stresses is how to reveal things by allowing your reader to discover, label and define for themselves. Don’t tell us a woman is beautiful. I mean, what does “beauty” even look like? To one person it may be long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a conservative manner of dress. To somebody else it may be short black hair, dark eyes, tattoos, piercings and boots. And besides, it’s vague and empty. Beautiful doesn’t mean anything. So when it comes to your setting, your characters, your emotions, all of that—don’t tell us what you want us to think, instead, paint a picture and let us define it.
What I’d like to do with this month’s column is to talk about how to reveal your characters by showing us these fully developed people in all of their glory and failure. There are different ways of arriving at the same place (such as that beautiful woman) without boring the reader, or by defining character traits through one narrow perspective. You’ll find, I think, that your audience will become more connected to your stories, and will dig deeper, become more immersed, if you allow them to fill in some of the gaps.
Whether you are beginning a short story or a novel, where you set that story is one of the most important decisions you can make. This is where it all goes down. When I started writing Disintegration, my second novel, I knew I wanted to set it in Wicker Park, my old stomping grounds in Chicago. Why? Because I knew the neighborhood really well. I’d lived there for over ten years, and could picture so much of the streets, the storefronts, buildings, and even the old apartment I lived in. In many ways, the characters we create, they’re just reflections and shadows of ourselves, right? So, I knew it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to focus on a man falling apart, disintegrating, since I did a good job of that when I was living alone, my heart broken, my life a mess back in the late 1990s.
So in a broad sense, I wanted to tuck away this man, somebody who would eventually become a killer, in a neighborhood that was on the edge of the city with pockets of it still a little bit seedy. I knew he could get to buses and el trains, bars and restaurants, all within walking distance. The neighborhood was my first way of revealing him.
Pull in tighter, and look at his apartment. Of course it’s going to be a mess, yeah? I mean, a man falling apart, losing his mind, he’s not going to pick up his socks, or even the crumpled beer cans. They’re all going to start piling up. It will probably smell, and not good, either—stale beer, dirty socks, cat urine maybe, garbage, old Chinese food. You get the picture. You get an immediate sense of his state of mind by the way he lives. How is the place furnished? Sparingly, in this case. He doesn’t care about nice things, aside from one armoire that he saved from his previous life (an important detail, as it shows he hasn’t totally given up). His mattress sits on the floor. The windows rattle; this is not a new apartment. The fridge and stove are aqua blue, old and beaten up—like him. And yet, he owns a cat, and takes good care of her, which shows you he isn’t a total ass, isn’t totally dead inside yet, he still cares about something. Fill in some details, show us a dirty kitchen, and add a strange item like a sawhorse with nails sticking out of it, a lone hammer lying on the floor. Open up a kitchen cabinet and show us that some are empty, and yet others are filled with stacked cans of cat food—rows and rows of the exact same tin. You’re revealing a lot about this man.
BODY AND CLOTHING
Let’s go back to that “beautiful woman.” You’ll look at her much differently if she has a shaved head (was it cancer or choice?) compared to pigtails. If she’s required to be active in your story or novel, she probably needs to be in pretty good shape. Does that mean tall and lean or broad shoulders and thick thighs? Is she a fighter, somebody who knows karate? Do you want her to be dominant or submissive? The way she carries herself will tell you a lot about her personality. Tattoos, piercings—where are they, what work did she have done? A dolphin is different than barbed wire, right? The small of the back is different than the bicep or neck. Did she used to be a cutter—is the bar code on her wrist covering up old scars? Think about these things.
This “beautiful woman” will tell you more about herself (or at least, what she wants you to think) by the way she dresses as well. Jeans, combat boots and a flannel shirt are much different than skintight PVC and nipple clamps. Think about how she has to function, what her role is in your story. A housewife, a waitress, a dancer—how do they look in your mind, and how will you reveal that damaged past in the way they dress? Do they wear men’s shirts and no pants when lounging on the bed? Is that a “daddy complex” or just for comfort? Think about those things. They have to fit.
What does your protagonist do for a living? This is what they spend a lot of their time doing—their job, right? Are they a carpenter, a teacher, a cop, a doorman, or a drug dealer? How did they get here—is this a lifelong dream come true or a nightmare of failure, a desperate person doing whatever they have to in order to survive? Are they hiding, trying to stay out of sight, do they only work at night? Policemen are supposed to dispense justice, teachers are supposed to share knowledge, clergy are supposed to create a sense of faith and peace.
You can show us a lot about your characters by putting them in situations and seeing how they survive, how they deal with pressure or conflict. Let’s say you want to show us another side to your killer. Put him on the street, going out at night to hunt down a pedophile, only to have the pedo show up at the art gallery where this killer lives—and this loser is having a party. How does your killer react? Then two girls come up to him and start hitting on him, asking him if he can roll them a joint. Put him in the back of a BMW with these two girls, and see what happens. Do they start fooling around? And what happens when the boyfriend pulls the car door open, and yanks the two girls out, smacking his wife across the face with an open hand. Your killer isn’t going to take that, is he? Will he walk away, choosing to keep a low profile, or will he stand up to the jerk and defend the women? If you establish a set of rules that he has (women don’t get hit) and have him defend these two girls by beating up the boyfriend, he almost comes off as noble, especially if he doesn’t kill the guy, only knocks him flat and tells him to clean up his act.
This is a great way to show us what your protagonist is made of. Don’t tell us your killer is also a hero—don’t tell us he has a heart. SHOW US. Much like a confrontation, what actions does your protagonist choose to do of his own free will? Is he a coward or a fighter? If he sees somebody in the park, a guy in a suit talking on a phone, if he sees this man kick the dog he has on a leash, how will he react? Will he laugh to himself? Maybe he hates dogs. Will he squint and watch the guy even closer, putting his own identity at risk by getting involved? And what if we turn up the heat here, make it even more gut wrenching—what if that big old slobbering Great Dane is suddenly a cute little puppy, and now it’s lying motionless in the dirt of the softball field, the man in the suit yapping on the phone? I’m thinking that suit gets his neck snapped.
LANGUAGE AND VOICE
What your character says, and how he says it, that also reveals who he is, where he came from, and what he’s doing now. The strong silent type, we’ve seen him a lot. His words will mean a lot, when he finally speaks, so don’t waste his words. They must reveal plot or define his character. Does he talk about an old flame, or hint at some dark deed he’s done just recently? Does he stick with a monotone voice and simple answers, nothing but “Yes” and “No,” giving us nothing? Does he have a high squeaky voice or a low baritone, or maybe a hushed whisper, raspy and damaged?
I don’t always do a great job of avoiding stereotypes, but keep that in mind—what’s expected. Does every killer have to be a white man, six feet tall, muscled with stubble on his face, dark hair and dark eyes in blue jeans and a black leather jacket? No. Maybe your doorman is a little guy, really short, but with a bad attitude, a red goatee and a bald head. Maybe the prostitute that your john is going to see, maybe she isn’t the traditional busty beauty, but a large woman with a matronly attitude, pale skin and layers of folded flesh, but a giving mouth. Mix it up when you can. Little details. Those tattoos we mentioned, what are they? Celtic script, barbed wire, Chinese symbols? Or can you find something unique and strange, some symbol or word that we don’t see every day. I took the logo and imagery from the video game Quake because it had an angelic vibe, but if you looked at it a certain way, it could be two people standing side by side. When the one-night-stand disappears in the middle of the night, leaving behind only a tube of red lipstick, do some research and give it a name (real or made up) that matches what you’re trying to say—Bruised, for example, or Fetish. Don’t steal the whole coin-flipping attitude, it’s been done to death, but if you did, wouldn’t that speak to your character’s thoughts about fate and destiny and free will? Checking voice mail obsessively can reveal that manic side. A song that keeps playing over and over in the background can reveal a desire to hold on to the past. Little things like that can say a lot, and over time, whether it’s 500 words or 50,000 words, they really add up to create a mosaic of personality and emotion.
There are many other ways to reveal your character as well, but this is a good start, some of the most obvious things to think about. Just keep in mind that every decision you make about your story is a chance to reveal more about your characters—what kind of car they drive (if they do), the music they listen to, the books in their library, the color of the walls, the style of furniture, the ways they spend their free time. Be aware when you are making a statement, and declaring things as fact—she is beautiful, he was evil, they were rich spoiled kids. If there is a way to show us those things, you’ll pull us deeper into the story, and allow us to fill in the spaces to make the experience our own.
Here are two classic short stories that do a great job of revealing character through their actions and surroundings: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" by Joyce Carol Oates and “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” (PDF DOWNLOAD) by Kate Braverman. Both of these stories have been highly anthologized. Both are in the Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories that I mentioned last month.
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