This is a fun post about characterization from James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: How to characterize
[T]he 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?” …
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.”
I didn’t laugh out loud, but I chuckled. That’s a pretty good analogy: introducing a character that way IS a lot like introducing yourself that way. In fiction, it certainly screams “badly written Mary Sue.” In real life, well, we shall assume that this never, ever happens in real life. Bell advises that to avoid this problem, the author should show and not tell — I imagine everyone has heard that before.
And since everyone always says “show, don’t tell,” let me add that there are absolutely times to tell and not show. Here, in fact, is a different post about times when you may want to do exactly that. This post suggests, briefly, that telling may most often be useful when writing a transition to get from one scene to another or one time to another; when glossing lightly over over unimportant action or unimportant characters; or when adding backstory. That sounds basically about right to me.
Later in his post, it seems to me that James Scott Bell is advocating an unusually high level of deliberate thought in the writing process: Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel, for example. My basic response to this advice is: Good heavens, that sounds painful. How about just writing the beginning of your novel. Characters will do stuff and say stuff and there you go, characterization. I suppose more writers than I realize might do this more mechanically. I find that hard to imagine.
His other advice seems more reasonable to me: have other characters react to the protagonist. Let their reactions show your protagonist more clearly to your readers. He provides some pretty good examples there if you wish to click through.
This sort of post benefits from great examples of well-done characterization in the opening scene, so let me see, what are some examples that occur to me right off … all right:
- The Breach by Patrick Lee offers a fantastic example of developing the character very naturally and organically through his thoughts and actions. I’m certain I’ve used this one as an example before, and by the way, it’s a fantastic thriller, so if you haven’t read it, take a look.
- The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, which I just referred to for something else the other day, so it’s on my mind. Aud is one of the most amazingly written characters I can think of.
- So, you remember how The Wizard Hunters starts out, with Tremaine contemplating suicide? Of course it turns out she had a little nudge from a despairing sorcerer trapped in a sphere, but still, right off the bat, her character is established by showing her in this darkly contemplative mood.
- Oh, of course, Murderbot, with those waves of I-don’t-care interspersed with actions that show it absolutely does care.
- Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson opens with strong characterization and then goes on from there, basically getting better and better. You need to be up for a novel where the journey is the story.
In Carson’s novel, having the story be the journey worked for me; in some books, the journey feels too much like the author should say, “Three months later …” and go on with the real story. In order to compress time that way, incidentally, the author would tell and not show.