Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Meatball Says Yes...Accurately, and Fully, Depicting Characters

Actually, this post is not about meatballs. It's just too good--and intriguing--a title to pass up.  My kids got magic meatballs tonight (some silly toy that talks and works like a Magic 8 ball and cracks me up, actually), so I have meatballs on the brain.

What I've also been thinking about: how writers describe characters. Characterization requires several elements--physical description, description of action, dialogue, and sometimes even thoughts.

Let me explain what I mean: If a character exhibits specific behavior such as shouting, finger wagging or pointing, banging tables, staring, spitting, etc., that all speaks for itself. There is no need for a writer to ever even say something like, "Mr. John Bratwurst was a cantankerous coot."

That would be too obvious, and anyway, there are better ways to say what you mean.

Quotes speak for themselves, as does action and description. Readers don't need everything spelled out--in fact, that's insulting--so writers should always show and not tell.

Do I even need to mention at this point that Show, don't tell is a cardinal rule of writing? So, too, is Trust your reader to figure it out.

The writer illustrates a character with thorough description and reporting.

Here's an example of what I mean:

Mr. Bratwurst got up close to Miss Petunia Fluffyglow, who remained quiet and placid. Raising his fist along with his voice, he boomed, "Watch me sue you for every dime you have!" 

Spittle formed at the edge of his mouth. His stubble seemed to be popping up by the second, almost exponentially, as his rage increased.  The swarthiness lent  him a dark, ominous look.

"You are a pathetic woman! Pathetic! You will die in the street, and I will enjoy watching that!" he kept shouting.

So what sort of character is this Mr. Bratwurst? The dialogue and description says it all.

That's what a writer needs to do--create a round, real character by using deft characterization techniques. Dialogue is perhaps the most telling facet of characterization, but body language also works wonders.

Take this, for example:

Pulling up a chair, our co-worker reached for the candy bowl with both hands, dragging it towards himself. He proceeded to dig in the bowl, dredging up handfuls of Jolly Ranchers, taking all the Blue Raspberry baubles and planting them on his lap while carelessly tossing the Watermelon ones on the ground.  

Again, the reader gets a pretty good idea of the "co-worker" depicted above, even though the only thing this character has done is dig around in a candy bowl.  The point is: even such a seemingly inconsequential action can speak volumes about a character.

Whether writing fiction or reporting on the facts, good writers use the same techniques to makes scenes come alive and to help their readers infer what the characters are really like.

Happy characterization!


  1. Brilliant, as usual. And you make it look so easy! Thanks for this. Will use with my creative writing classes.

  2. Good news--and let me know how it goes!



  3. I am going to add a PS to this post. I am STILL seeing my critics trying to blast me for using the name "Miss Petunia Fluffyglow" as a way to apparently make fun of someone. No, people. "Miss Petunia Fluffyglow" is ME. I used that name for MYSELF. What do you think of it, now?