To create compelling characters, forget “Show, don’t tell.” What you want to do instead is “Tell, then show.”
Watch the youtube video above or read the article below. The info is pretty much the same.
When it comes to bringing characters to life on the page, many writers fall back on objective details. They think that their job is to let a reader form their own impression of a character.
However, being objective rarely gives a reader a good sense of what a character is like. Let me explain why with a few examples. The first description I’ve written only includes objective details, what most people would consider to be a great example of showing versus telling:
The man was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a yellow tie. The first two buttons of his shirt were undone. He had perfectly pressed pants and shiny leather shoes.
What’s the problem? While this description offers lots of details, I honestly don’t get a very good sense of who this person is.
Let me do a quick rewrite of this first description, taking the very same objective details and adding subjective information. In other words, instead of just offering facts and letting the reader draw their own conclusions, I am going to tell the reader what this person is like.
The man was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a yellow tie. I immediately thought, “mafia,” which was only confirmed when I noticed that the first two buttons of his shirt were undone, what I assumed was a message to the world that he was macho enough to show off a bit of his chest. His pants were perfectly pressed too. This was either a man who had people working for him or who had married a woman with traditional values who believed it fell to her to do these types of chores.
After I added my opinion about this character, didn’t you get a much better sense of what he is like? In fact let me take the very same objective details from my first description and use them to describe an entirely different type of person. Again, this is a man in a suit with shiny shoes, who is wearing a white shirt with the top two buttons undone.
The man looked like he had stepped straight out of the pages of GQ. He was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a yellow tie. The first two buttons of his shirt were undone which revealed just enough skin to show off a tan, hairless chest. He had perfectly pressed pants and shiny leather shoes as if he had a personal assistant or perhaps a stylist who made sure he was perfectly put together as he headed out of his apartment on East 79th each morning.
What did I just do there? I took the same objective details, and described an entirely different person. The point I’m trying to make? Facts in and of themselves do little to help us understand what a character is like. It’s in the subjective details that we start to feel like we truly know the people you are describing on the page.