Picasso did this so well – sketch out an entire character with just a few lines, as he did with this lovable dog. As writer, we want to do the same thing! We want our readers to see our characters as complete, three-dimensional people, but don’t want to spend a lot of tedious description to make this happen. How do we do this?
I’m just a beginner on this path, but there are a few times when I think I’ve gotten it somewhat right. The main thing is to pick one or two details that are specific to just that one person, and put them into the dialogue or into the action of the scene. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” rule – make the description happen as an action, not just words. We want the detail to do the telling, without actually telling explicitly. Clear, right? Maybe some examples from my work in progress can help.
Naia is what one of my critique partners called a “happy Valkyrie.” She is the primary fighter of the group, wielding a mean sword, but she has a ton of fun doing it. That sentence is description, telling you about her, but that’s not how the information is presented in the story. For instance, here’s what happens just after Naia fought and defeated some really scary other-worldly creatures. Kay, the narrator, is ranting a bit about how she doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she says “There are monsters out back!”
Naia interrupted, “Were monsters.” She tossed the wadded-up paper towel in a bin and celebrated her shot a pumped fist.
In that brief moment, Naia shows that she’s proud of defeating the monsters, that she didn’t find it particularly stressful, and that she’s cheerfully competitive, even about tossing away the paper towel. Not bad for 20 words.
Here’s an example with a minor character, one for whom we never even learn a name. Kay comes across him as he is heading off into the woods directly toward some similar monsters, but he doesn’t know the danger he faces. She tries to stop him, but it doesn’t go well. The young man accuses her of representing the oppressive adult power structure.
“I don’t care what you say.” He tossed his head and the black curtain of hair fell back perfectly over one eye. He’d paid a lot of money for that haircut. “I can’t keep on living like this.”
It was a proud moment for me when a critique partner casually referred to this character as the “emo teen,” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when creating him. I could have describe him that way explicitly, but instead I had him express his attitude in his own words, and in the toss of his head. The expensive haircut, ostentatiously covering one eye, cements the picture of a whiny, over-privileged adolescent who thinks the world is out to get him. Unfortunately, at this moment he’s close to right about that.
One more example. Alex, an important character in the team, is tough and demanding. Kay often thinks of her as acting like a school principal, and this shows in her actions and her speech. There’s one moment early on, though, that’s different, that hints at a whole area of motivation we don’t see otherwise. They try to rescue someone from the monsters but don’t succeed. After the fight is over,
Alex knelt beside the boy I had tried to save. She stroked his face gently, touched the old scar on his hand, bowed her head. Miss Martinet herself, grieving for this small stranger.
We come back to this well-hidden bit of Alex’s psyche later in the story, but for now there’s just this one sentence allowing one small peek. It explains something about why the others stick with Alex despite how prickly she is. There’s no explicit flag here (Look! She really cares about these people!). There are just her actions, for the reader to interpret.
As I work through my revision, I try to watch out for those places where I try to use a big, broad brush to paint a character, telling about them rather than showing them. For instance, just this week I flagged a place where I described a character as “crusty outside but soft inside, like the bread she baked.” This is too direct a description. I need to show her being crusty but soft, and once I show that I won’t need to tell about it. If I’m vigilant, I may be able to find and dig out most of these descriptive slip-ups, and replace all that telling with a telling detail or two.