How do we create vibrant characters within a story?
A long description of a character, his/her antecedents, personality traits, skills, and relationships, does not in fact tell me anything about that character. Such a description only tells me what is in the writer’s head about that character. This can be valuable information for the writer to know, perhaps even crucial depending on the flow and needs of the story.
But the way I, as the reader, learn about character in the story is through action and reaction and interaction (all actions): I learn about the character through seeing what they do and what they say and what they think and how they respond to the crises and relationships of the story. Nothing else ultimately matters in terms of character.
So, if you tell me that my forthright heroine always speaks her mind and is decisive, and yet in her first interactions with the powerful alpha male hero she stammers, is wrong about things, is shy, and tongue-tied, then you have lost me, because I will start disbelieving what you are telling me because what the character is doing contradicts it.
In fact, you don’t need to tell me anything about my forthright heroine, not in personality terms. There may be things you, the author, will want to tell me, but be cautious about doing so. Because it is very likely you won’t need to if you can use character action and interaction to get across those same things.
[Aside: That I am a big fan of the adage “Show, don’t Tell” that doesn’t mean there are never appropriate times to use Tell as one of the tools in your writing toolkit. There are. You just need to know when and why it works.]
When the forthright heroine speaks her mind despite knowing she will be taken to task for it, or the hardened warrior buys flowers he doesn’t need from an indigent child when no one is looking, or the publicly-admired prince slaps his servants in private because the water in in his bath isn’t the right temperature, or the hard-bitten foul-mouthed tough-as-nails detective cries (or doesn’t cry) when she is alone because her dog has just died, or the chance-met traveler on a winter night gives her cloak to a beggar, you then know far more about the character than if I reeled out a list of adjectives.
Additionally, when characters meet other characters they already know, their responses and interactions will be governed by that prior relationship. The writer doesn’t have to tell us. Because we are band animals, we most of us can quickly suss out relationships through watching interaction. So if Jo enters the room and stiffly shakes hands with Emma while standing as far away from her as possible but warmly kisses Cecilia on either cheek, we can guess something–maybe we don’t quite yet know what–about her relationships with the other two women.
More importantly, consider this: Humans like to figure out other humans. We evolved to observe, interact, gossip, and create relationships.
Creating a relationship between the characters is not all a novelist does. We as writers are also creating a relationship between the character and the reader.
So ask yourself: Why does the reader need to know all this stuff you have in your head?
What do we truly know about people when we first meet them? In that sense, every new person we meet is “shallow” until we get to know them better.
During the course of a story, we are getting to know characters better just as we get to know new acquaintances better by spending time with them. We learn about them through conversation, activity, gossip, and observation. They don’t hand us a sheet of paper listing important things about their life they think we need to know, not unless they are applying for a job and handing us their resume. To a great extent the author-supplied info dump is a resume. And resumes are almost always dead boring to read.
That doesn’t mean we don’t exchange information. We do that all the time, through dialogue, action, reaction, and interaction. The occasional judicious Tell can also be a good place to release information of this kind, but only the information we truly need to know that can’t be better revealed in another way.
Furthermore, never, ever, underestimate your readers. Readers don’t need everything spoon fed to them. Readers like to figure things out. Readers (not all readers; not all books) read in part to interact with the characters. We are social animals. Let readers be social in their reading experience. Because one of the relationships you are creating when you write is the relationship between the reader and your story.
[Disclaimer: I wrote this post some years ago and am reprising it due to election night interfering with my desire to write a new post.]