How to Characterize

by James Scott Bell


“Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.”



Some years ago I decided to see what all the hubbub was about a bestselling romance writer. It’s not my usual genre, but I like to read outside the thriller realm to pick things up other authors do well in their own bailiwick.

So I went to the library and picked one of this author’s titles off the shelf, at random. I sat down and opened to the first chapter.

I don’t have the specifics now (I’ve since forgotten the title!) but it opens with the main character in her car. The second paragraph went something like this: She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success… 

It went on in the same vein for a few more lines. And I found myself thinking, “Really? You expect me to believe this?”

You know why. It’s pure telling. How would we feel if we met someone for the first time at a party, and the person said, “Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.” It’s only a short jump from that to an author telling us the same thing about a characters.

So let’s go over the two ways to characterize that won’t put up a subconscious barrier in the reader.

  1. Show us through action

Instead of telling us that Mary cares about people, show her bringing a meal to a grieving friend. Or stopping her car to comfort a crying child. Or letting a little old lady go ahead of her at the pharmacist’s.

Or, start with a character who doesn’t care about people. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca sticks his neck out for nobody. The first time we see him he’s playing chess—by himself. A bit later in Act 1, the police come to take away Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who begs Rick to help him. Rick refuses, even knowing Ugarte will now face a firing squad.

And by the way, a character’s own dialogue is a form of action. So earlier when Ugarte is sitting with Rick and asks, “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick responds, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

And as dialogue is a form of action, inner thoughts are a form of dialogue (just not so that anyone can hear it).  In a novel Rick could think If I gave you any thought I probably would, and not say anything out loud.

So determine what you want readers to know and feel about your character. Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel—because first impressions count.

  1. Let other characters do the talking

In the first of my Mike Romeo books, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted the readers to know that Romeo is a big guy who can handle himself in a fight. Since these books are in First Person POV, I couldn’t very well have Mike say, “I’m a big, strong guy. I can handle myself in a fight.” That’s braggadocio, and we don’t like braggarts in real life, do we?

So on the opening page I have him jogging, stopping to talk to an older woman about her flowers (Mike is into flora). At one point the woman says, “You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“Football player, maybe?”

I shook my head.

“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”

“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”

You do the same thing in Open Third Person POV (where you switch between POV characters). Dean Koontz does this in The Door to December. The first three chapters are from Laura McCaffrey’s POV. She is a doctor—a psychiatrist—whose ex-husband absconded with their daughter six years ago. Now the police are taking her to a home with multiple murder victims and lots of blood. The detective there, Dan Haldane, has summoned her because one of the bodies might be her ex. He also needs her to see something (Koontz, the rascal, keeps us in suspense as to what that is).

Then we get Chapter Four, which is from Haldane’s POV. Koontz uses this opportunity to further characterize Laura:

Dan Haldane was surprised at how well the woman was coping with the situation. Okay, she was a doctor, but most physicians weren’t accustomed to wading through blood; at the scene of multiple, violent homicides, doctors could clutch up and lose control as easily as any ordinary citizen. It wasn’t just Laura McCaffrey’s medical training that was carrying her through this; she also had an unusual inner strength, a toughness and resilience that Dan admired—that he found intriguing and appealing. Her daughter was missing and might be hurt, might even be dead, but until she to the answers to important questions about Melanie, she wasn’t, by God, going to break down or be weak in any way. He liked her.

So don’t let me catch you, dear author, trying to slip in some instant characterization by telling me something. Let’s see it demonstrated on the page, or hear about it from other characters.

Make sense?

34 thoughts on “How to Characterize

  1. Pingback: How to Characterize - Dooiz

  2. Quick question, and certainly not denying the quality of Koontz’s writing, but … do you think the last sentence in the paragraph is needed? Inquiring author wants to know.

    • Good question Terry, and you know what? I don’t think Koontz would disagree. This novel was from his early period, and he has always strived to improve his writing with each book. That’s one of the things I admire most about him.

      But yes, the He liked her is implied by the entire paragraph and therefore not needed.

  3. A mantra we hear often, including at KZB, is to write the book and not get hung up perfecting the first chapter. As Kevin Dockery repeats (so often that all of us at Cleveland Writers Group chime in), “Finish the damn thing.”

    Walter Mosley gives a corollary to this mantra that relates it to today’s topic. I came across it after reading _Devil in a Blue Dress_ and marveling at how he introduces the three main characters, including the first person narrator. In a Writer’s Digest article, he wrote:

    “The other thing about it is this: You’re reading this novel, right? And the notion is, well, it’s like this is the first time you’re ever reading these words. And maybe the last also. But what’s important to remember is that the writer wrote a draft of that chapter and then another and then another, you know what I mean? The writer has written a whole book and then has come back to that chapter with all this knowledge that they have from the whole book, and brings that to bear.

    “So even though it feels kind of like, well, he did this in the first two chapters or three chapters— really it took a whole book to be able to do that in the first two or three chapters.”

      • But also Mosley’s particular point that “The writer has written a whole book and then has come back to that chapter with all this knowledge that they have from the whole book, and brings that to bear” [on defining the characters].

  4. Learn, learn, learn…love it-thanks, JSB.

    My character, Annie, is a woman who’s a bit OCD (and also frightened of …). In order to show her OCD nature, I used a conversation with her best bestie, Ellen, friends since fifth grade. Annie was trying to convince Ellen she’d changed, was more spontaneous now.

    Annie: “Don’t harp at me, Ellen. I can be spontaneous, just not every second of the day like you are. You’re like a dang dragonfly, never flying in a straight line.”

    Ellen: “Yeah, whatever. Let’s see, it’s Thursday. Did you fix pork chops and mashed potatoes for dinner?”

    Annie: “That doesn’t count. Roger and the kids expect it-it’s almost their favorite meal.”

    Ellen: “Do you still fold your dirty laundry before putting it in the hamper?”

    Annie: “Stop it. I can fit more in the hamper if I fold it.”

    Ellen: “Uh-huh. You don’t fool me.”

    My sister folded her dirty laundry before putting it in the hamper. She was my model for Annie. 🙂

  5. Excellent advice as always, Jim. I’m going to send a few of my clients here to read this — and more of your Sunday columns, while they’re at it!

  6. The hero in my WIP has befriended the young man who lives next door, Danny. Danny has Down’s syndrome and innocently reports everything he hears people of the colony say about my hero, to my hero. Part of my characterization effort here is to show my hero reacting to / dealing with this information.
    I don’t know if it’s going to work but so far it’s feeling good, and I’m not going to overdo it – maybe 2, possibly 3 such instances, tops.
    Keeping my fingers crossed.

  7. And you have to be vigilant about it. You may show those characteristics 80% of the time in your writing but sometimes, if you get tired, stressed, or in a hurry, it’s so easy for the telling to just slip out. Thank God for rewrites. 😎

    • I’ve actually seen it suggested that one use telling in order to get the story out and then go back and rework the “telling-passages.”

      This assumes you’ll have the focus and distance to identify them on the rework. Maybe a beta reader specifically assigned to look for them.

      • Yes both seem valid. Sometimes its best just to get it down and plow on, and nothing beats having a fresh set of eyes on your story.

    • If I’m writing hot and don’t want to stop, I may put in a marker (***) for a place where I know I’ll want to put in fuller description, etc. Then I’ can come back to it the next day.

  8. Gosh, thanks for shooting my blood pressure up by that genre generalist insult to romance writers. From the prose, I’m guessing you are talking about Danielle Steele, the Dan Brown of mainstream “romance.” They have dreck craft but sell a depressing amount of books because they have plot game. She in no shape or form defines quality romance writing or romance, period. Her books aren’t even sold as romances.

    Let me switch back in to my academic role as narrative historian. Back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, romance, outside of category Harlequin romance, was a brand new genre, and the early writers were blasting up the bestseller lists while publishers were scrambling to create their own romance lines. Lots of bad writing was being cranked out because publishers were so desperate for content they’d publish almost anyone. Then a group of bestselling ladies decided that the romance industry and its writers needed a voice, a place to nurture newer writers, and protection against the publishers and the torch-bearing troglodytes with their chant of “women writers and books for women bad.” RWA was formed.

    Chapters were formed all over the US, and new writers were taught craft and the business side of publishing careers. The other major writer organizations didn’t have an interest in teaching and nurturing new voices, and the Internet wasn’t an option so newer female writers of all genres joined in force and learned how to write vibrant and five-senses prose, fully-defined characters, and reader experience immersion not found in any other genre.

    They took these lessons back to their genres and began to publish. Their immersive writing, in contrast to the just-the-facts prose of mystery and science fiction, drew in omnivorous female readers who buy a fortune in books every month, as well as readers who expected more from the prose experience because of other media. Publishers and smart writers paid attention because of improved sales and a reader base that was no longer so narrow, and the narrative in most books in most genres changed.

    So, don’t generalize and diss the genre that is the mother of the biggest and most successful narrative shift in over a hundred years.

    NOTE: Yes, RWA has its problems. The national board has a really bad tendency to go mean girls. I left in the late Nineties because of its vendetta against small publishers and ebook pioneers. But most of the chapters have always been awesome. They are the only reason I’ve always suggested that new writers join.

    • Marilynn, re-read the post so your blood pressure goes down. Where did I insult all romance writers, or the genre as a whole? I was critical of one writer and one passage in one book.

      However, if we had a door prize here at TKZ, you’d get it, for you correctly identified the writer in question!

  9. Yes, yes, yes! 100% agree, Jim. Telling rather than showing characteristics of the MC robs the reader of the experience to visualize who they are, what they stand for, and why we should care.

  10. This post reminded me of a review I received from a freelance writer.

    “We don’t have to see the bad guys in action to be afraid of them. Through the reactions of the other characters in the book, Cecilia Pulliam paints a picture of pure terror. Great job.”

    That wasn’t a conscious effort, but after her review, I’ve paid a lot more attention to showing instead of telling.

    Thank your another great post, James. Love the examples and reminder of how easy it is to slip into telling.

  11. Au contraire! Telling is one of life’s innocent pleasures—but you have to make it worth the reader’s while. The problem with your example isn’t the telling, it’s that the author has cast an involved, besotted imbecile in the role of narrator. No one else could write, “She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success…”

    Actually, that’s not the problem, either. The problem is that we’re not playing it for laughs. So I’d improve it like this: “She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, had earned every bit of her success, and her farts smelled like roses.”

    Alternatively, if the narrator isn’t intended as a figure of fun, he needs to stop drooling on the talent. This is a characterization issue, really, and not about telling.

      • What I’m trying to say is this: When telling involves value judgments and opinions, especially questionable ones, it reveals something about the speaker’s character. So if a story starts with, “My brother is an idiot,” we’ve already learned more about the first-person narrator than about her brother. By telling us something about him, she shows something about herself.

        But it’s not usual anymore for a third-person narrator to have a distinct personality or to be unreliable, so we shoot ourselves in the foot whenever our third-person narrator expresses an over-the-top opinion. It’s hard for the reader to know what to do with such statements.

        (Not in comic fiction, though. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett showed us that. Hence my comment about playing it for laughs.)

        Worse, since we expect third-person stories to be told from an intimate viewpoint these days, the reader tends to interpret the narrator’s opinions as those of the viewpoint character, as if the opening had been, “I was beautiful, talented, and caring. I was a hard worker, and earned every bit of my success… ” Off-putting.

        That’s what I meant.

        Yes, showing these things would work better since we’d have actions instead of value judgments. Though why this is page-one material at all sort of mystifies me.

        • Ah, I think I get you. Yes, the character’s own voice and opinions DO characterize. That’s not “author-telling” but “character-telling” (to coin a phrase). It’s one of the things that make John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee memorable. He (First Person McGee) was not shy about straight out telling us his view on certain matters.

  12. As a writer of, among other things, romance for longer than I care to admit now, I don’t claim that particular writer as kin. 😉 At probably somewhere near that same time, Penguin put out the first book of my Hawk Trilogy that started with this:

    “It snowed in Sunridge for the first time in twenty years the day they put the old man in the ground, and Jason West knew damned well the bastard had summoned it up himself.”

    And yes, it’s a romance. A bit different, I think. I hope!

    (and counting down until Mr. Romeo hits my Kindle!!)

  13. The sun had been a hard master, waking her an hour before the alarm was scheduled to sound. She trudged into her office, bleary-eyed from a hard night of social media, and put the large mug of Starbucks Extra Bold French Roast in the holder on her desk. Propping a weary chin on her palm, she poked at the on-off switch on her laptop.
    She managed to down the entire cup of coffee in the semi-eternity it took Windows 10 to boot up. Finally, today’s email list plopped on the screen. She deleted blocks of book promos, made a face at a sender who didn’t seem to understand the term “unsubscribe,” and ignored the rest — until she spied the Sunday morning missive that would provide the writerly inspiration for the day.
    “Aha!” She clicked through and speed-read the message. Her head bobbed up and down in agreement. “Show, don’t tell. Makes sense!”

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