by Stu Leventhal
When working on characterization, authors try so hard to create well rounded characters that it becomes easy to get caught up in writing far too literal prose. Yes, we want our readers to see all sides of our characters. After all, isn’t that the whole concept of creative characterization? Of course! But, you still don’t want to spell everything outright for your readers. I understand that you as author may like to use the dialog as a means to tell the reader a character’s background story. But remember, real people in life are vague, illusive and sneaky too. To be of any interest to anyone, your characters should be skeptical of other characters questions, just like real people are skeptical of others’ motives. Characters who just give up personal information to another character they just met will come off as unnatural and the conversations are strained.
As a discussion example, let’s look at a common literary technique where the author has one character describe another character to a third character:
“Come with me Joan, I want to introduce you to our tall, dark and handsome, new neighbor. He’s very funny, super charming, a bachelor, well-traveled and just all the ladies simply adore him.”
Now from an author’s point of view, it may at first seem as if you have figured out a very clever means of introducing a new character to your readers. The reader can sure picture what he looks like and have a good idea of his personality before he even enters the scene. And you accomplished all this with only a handful of words. Hi five to you! You are getting the gist of this characterization gig. But, let’s look deeper here so we can take your writing up another notch.
Technically, you have not really established any characterization yet with the above scene because the motives behind the speaker’s actions have not been confirmed. Suppose for an instant that the speaker is only using that fantastic description of her new neighbor as a means of distracting Joan so she can lead Joan out of the room because she wants to keep her away from her ex-husband. Thus, the description of the new tall, dark and handsome neighbor could really turn out to be the exact opposite of what he really is like! On the other hand, in that case, the scene would be great for further developing the character traits of the two women and for revealing their true relationship to your readers. Plus, the true nature behind their actions is also established.
The problem with using contrived conversations to further your plots, settings and especially characterization is that you set tall orders to fill. “When the speaker says her new neighbor is all those wonderful things, you can’t seriously expect Joan or more importantly, your readers to just take the speakers word on that. All you have really done is open a can of worms. Now you have to back up all those statements every time the new neighbor enters a scene. You’ve given that character some mighty big shoes to fill! And if the new neighbor doesn’t live up to everyone’s expectations, you’ve lost your reader! Wouldn’t the new neighbor have turned out to be a much more interesting character if you had the woman of the house pull her friend Joan aside and whisper something to her like:
“Joan, don’t be obvious but turn real slow and take a quick glance over my left shoulder. See the guy standing about twenty five feet behind us staring at the Picasso print on the wall?”
“Yes.” Joan purred. “Who is the tall, dark, greying at the temples, distinguished looking, gentleman?”
“He’s my ultra, shy and quite mysterious, new neighbor, Bartholomew Brickleford.”
“Woo!” Joan’s pencil thin, bleached eyebrows arched. “That’s some name!”
“I need you to come with me and help me find out more about…Bartholomew.”
“Ah, a spy mission.” Joan giggled. “This reminds me of my younger days, working for C-section.”
Her friend glared at her. “The only C-section you were ever involved with was when you gave birth to that incorrigible teenage boy of yours.”
“What!” Joan slapped her friend on the shoulder. “I’ll have you know I gave natural child birth to my wonderful offspring. And further more my Robby is no more incorrigible than your snot nosed Jeffery!”
“Yes, both our sons are the terrors of the neighborhood. I’ll agree with you there. But, right now…” She grasped ahold of her blond friend’s blouse sleeve. “More important things are at foot Watson. Come!” she tugged Joan in the direction of the stranger, who was heading towards the double glass sliding patio doors.
“Our target is getting away!”
“Why do I always have to be Watson?” Joan followed complaining. “Why can’t I once be Sherlock?”
I hope you see how characteristics of both women were further developed and revealed quickly. Can you guess why the author has intentionally not revealed the name of the woman speaking to Joan? Also we have firmly established that the man is a tall, older gentleman.
Treat your readers as equals. Give them credit to be able to figure out what your characters are holding back. Play to their egos. Everything doesn’t have to be lined up in a pretty neat row for readers. People lie and therefore characters can lie! But authors can never lie.
When you wish to reveal a character is lying, have one of the other characters recognize a card gambler’s tell. Or show that someone is withholding information or avoiding saying something via their body language. Have a character overt their eyes when they answer a question. Glancing away is a good means of indicating a person is concealing something more that they don’t want to share. Show your characters fidgeting, sweating, suddenly itching or scratching. Have a character change his or her tone of voice, demeanor and/or mood abruptly.
Your readers are intelligent experienced beings. Most have been reading for quite a while! Trust your readers to be able to pick up on your subtle telltale signs. They’ll thank you with reader loyalty for having faith in them and not treating them like a child. They’ll enjoy reading your work. When they pick up your book to read they’ll feel like they are sharing a moment with a college. Readers look forward to reading each new thing their authors come up with to share. When you start trusting your readers, you’ll be able to say so much more using a lot less words. The true measure of a writer’s growth and development is, not having to spell everything out!
Author, Stu Leventhal has just released a mystery Kindle Book in the suspense mystery detective genre. HIGH SEA by Stu Leventhal is a thriller set on an exotic island resort. check out the video Kindle Book Trailer...