Narratives describe the processes of characters attempting to change their situation. Powerful narratives can emerge when the writer or storyteller is able to portray credible and unique characters.

To create and maintain credible and unique characters, storytellers must have success in two spheres. First, the storyteller must imagine the character in depth. Second the storyteller must communicate as much of his/her knowledge of the character as the story requires. Although this seems like a linear process, most writers find that it is not. I find that I imagine my characters more clearly and fully as I am writing about them and as the story unfolds. This means, of course, that I may have to revise drafts of my work based on what I learn during the process of creating those drafts. Similarly, since storytellers imagine their characters as full-fledged and multidimensional, writers often have to revise their work by removing nuances and details that are extraneous to the story.

But the major questions facing writers as they engage their story are
  • "How do I create characters in words?"
  • "How do I make those characters vivid?"
  • "How do I let the reader know what he/she needs to know about the character?"

One of the most notorious cliches in writing workshop type settings is "Show, don't tell." The reason this adage is a cliche is that it is very useful, especially in creating, developing, and maintaining character. Saying that "Whenever possible, let the reader draw his/her own conclusions," I make a similar point.

Take these sentences, for example:

  • Jordan was very immature.
  • Samantha and Adam were in love.

These sentences feature expository description. They seem to describe characters. A closer look, however, reveals that they do not describe those characters. Rather these sentences state conclusions. The narrator of sentence one has concluded that Jordan was immature and so states. When you write a sentence like this, you have to assume that the reader will know what you mean and will credit your judgement. This kind of writing is as risky as it is dull. The better option is to let the readers know enough about Jordan, Samantha, and Adam to judge for themselves.

Here are some ways to let your readers know needful things about the characters of your story.

  • Show the character in action. What the character does will reveal his/her maturity, honesty, efficiency, sense of humor, emotional volatility, etc. Having Jordan pout when he doesn't get his way shows his immaturity in a dynamic way that involves the reader in the process of "getting to know Jordan."

  • Show how the character talks. And in fact, when you have two characters talking to one another, the reader can use the dialogue to learn about both characters.

  • Show how the character thinks (via internal voice or dialogue).

  • Show how the person deals with other characters. Does he/she dominate others or defer to them? Does he or she bully? Does he or she help others? How does the character treat animals?

  • Describe the personal space of the character

  • Reveal the character's tastes (in food, dress, music, film, literature, etc.)

  • Share revealing fragments of the character's history.

  • Show what other characters say and think about the characters (I call this gossip). This is another way that the reader can learn about two or more characters at the same time.

  • Share the character's habits of thought, speech, and behavior. (ie." Adam always checked the change slots of vending machines and Samantha always clipped coupons from the Sunday newspaper.")

  • Show how the character responds to stress.

The art in this is that the writer must create and develop his/her characters while simultaneously revealing the situation the characters face, creating a sensual envelope for the story, and moving the plot through its various developments.