Show Them Inaction

When we're getting acquainted with friends, neighbors, classmates, or coworkers, we don't do so by reading their bios. We come to know them through what they tell us about themselves, what other people say about them, and what we observe about their behavior. With characters in a story, the readers' strongest relationships are formed in these same ways, with an added bonus: In the case of viewpoint characters, we can listen to their thoughts.

Providing a background summary is the easiest but least effective way to give readers information about a character. What we can see and hear for ourselves is much more powerful than anything the author explains to us. It's like the difference between having a friend describe the blind date she's arranged for us and actually arriving at the restaurant and meeting the touted stranger.

Because you have the limited space in a short story, you may need to give us a few details in summary. But as much as you can, reveal the character through:

What she does: How she acts and reacts.

What he thinks: How he talks to himself in his own inner monologue.

What she says: How she expresses herself in dialogue with other characters.

What others think and say: What they say to him directly, and how they discuss him in his absence.

Here's an example, in which we meet a young woman named Christine. The segments are in the reverse of the order above:

What others say about her: "I don't see how Christine can turn down a nice young man like Jack," her mother said.

"I guess she just doesn't want to marry him," said her father.

"Well, she did before. I mean, they've been engaged for six months."

"She changed her mind. Woman's prerogative."

"It's not like she'll have many more chances. She's twenty-six. And men as nice as Jack don't come along every day. Soon they'll all be snapped up by the sensible girls and who'll be left for Christine? Just the misfits and the failures and the woman-haters."

"Now, Fran, she's an attractive, sensitive young woman," her father said. "She'll have no problem finding as many young men as she wants when she decides she wants them."

"This is serious, George," insisted her mother "What can we do to make her change her mind?"

"Nothing. We haven't been able to make her change her mind since the time she decided to be born three weeks early and ruined our plans for a last quiet weekend at the beach."

"Well, I'd like to see her settled down. And I wouldn't even mind seeing a grandchild or two come along one of these days."

"I don't know, Fran. I'm too young to be a grandfather just yet. Besides, I suspect Wendy and Richard will decide to tie the knot before long."

"That's just what I mean. Here's her baby sister ready to get married when we haven't got Christine to the altar yet. And think about poor Jack. You know how much in love with her he is. And he's such a fine young man."

"Then it won't be long until some fine young woman snaps him up. Christine will settle down when she's good and ready, just like she does everything else. If she marries Jack to please you or me, or Jack himself for that matter, she'll be miserable. It's something she has to decide for herself."

What she says: "It's got nothing to with Jack," Christine told Wendy. "I really do love him. But he's ready to settle down and buy a house and have a baby, and I'm not. I want some travel and excitement first. It's as simple as that."

"Can't you travel and have excitement together?" Wendy asked. "That's what Richard and I plan to do."

"Jack got adventuring out of his system during those years when he dropped out of school. Now that he has his degree he's ready to conquer the corporate world. I don't care about the corporate world; I want to see the real one."

"You can't see much of the real one with only two weeks of vacation a year."

"I know. That's why I'm quitting my job."

"Quitting!"

'Yep. I'm giving notice on Friday. Don't tell Mom and Dad. I'd better spring it on them myself."

"Wow, what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to Hawaii for starters. Jennifer's in Honolulu now. She said I can stay with her while I look for a job and a place to live. Then when I get tired of that, I'll try someplace else. Maybe get a grant from the Australian government to go there for a couple of years."

"They only do that if you have some kind of skill they need."

"Well, who knows what they might need. It's worth checking into. Oh, Wendy, I can't wait!"

What she thinks: I'm so excited! Aloha, Hawaii! Aloha, Christine! If they hang a lei around my neck when I get off the plane, I hope it's a yellow one. Wonder what I should take. Just a suitcase—I can always send for stuff later. Or get new things. Wendy can use what's in my apartment.

What a relief to get that hunk of rock off my finger. The longer I wore it, the more it bothered me. I told Jack it was too big and fussy when he gave it to me. My hand's too small for a ring like that. But it had been his mother's, so that was that. If I do get married someday, I won't wear a wedding ring. Men don't a lot of the time and no one thinks a thing of it. Poor Jack. I know he's disappointed, but he'll get over it. Plenty of women will be champing at the bit to marry him. I bet Laurie Meissner's at his apartment right now putting in her application.

What she does: Christine lifted the red suitcase to the bed and opened it. What to put in it? The yellow daisy-print dress, of course; that would be neat and appropriate for job hunting. She took the dress from the closet and laid it out on the bed. She folded it neatly, twice lengthwise and once across its width, and placed it in the bottom of the suitcase.

She rolled up her old soft jeans and set them on the bed. From her third bureau drawer she took the yellow-and-blue bikini and the turquoise tank suit and stacked them on top of the jeans.

Back at the closet, reaching for the beige skirt and jacket, she spotted her wedding dress and pulled that out instead. She removed the dress from its protective plastic and held it up to her, kicking the closet door shut so she could admire herself in the full-length mirror that hung on it. Looking at herself she frowned, then draped the dress carefully over the bed. She swept her hairbrush through her long locks and dabbed on a bit of reddish lipstick. From the row of shoes at the bottom of the closet, she pulled the white sandals with heels and slipped them onto her bare feet. Then she held up the wedding dress in front of her again, smoothed its white skirt and twirled before the mirror.

"Christine? Can I help you, dear?" Her mother's voice from the hallway. Quickly, before Mom could come into the bedroom, Christine stuck the dress on its hanger and thrust it back into the closet. Spotting the plastic still lying on the bed, she balled it up and tossed it onto the closet floor.

Look how much we have learned about Christine simply from watching and listening, without needing any intervention from an outside narrator. We know that at age twenty-six she is breaking her engagement to a man named Jack; though fond of him, she's not yet ready to settle down. Even so, Christine is a sensible, steady young woman. She holds a job and has her own apartment. Her plans for the future include another job and apartment, albeit in a more exotic location. She is neat by nature (look at the carefully folded dress in the suitcase and the shoes lined up in a row on her closet floor). And despite what she's telling herself and others, her actions show that she is feeling a little bit ambivalent about her big decision.

We've learned about her family, too, which includes parents and a younger sister named Wendy who is also engaged. Her mother is dismayed by Christine's change of plans; her father is more supportive. We know that Jack dropped out of school for a long period but returned to earn a college degree; now he is launching a business career. An attractive man, he is what in Christine's mother's youth would have been known as a good catch.

That's just a sampling—there's more information to be gleaned from these paragraphs. What we don't know is whether in the end Christine leaves or stays.

Tip Sheet:

Three-Dimensional Characters

1. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Body Type—Height, weight, build, coloring, features. How does the character feel about her physical self?

Health—What physical problems, if any, does the character experience? Does he consider them a major or a minor problem? How much do they interfere with his activities?

Clothing—What kinds of clothes and accessories does she typically wear? What does she feel most comfortable in? What is her personal style?

Movement—What is his style of movement? Is he graceful or awkward? An exercise nut or a couch potato?

2. SOCIOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Name—What name does she go by? Is it the name she was given at birth or one she chose for herself? Does she have a nickname? How are her age, her heritage, and her parents' expectations reflected in her name?

Basic Biographical Details—Age, when and where born, how he got from childhood to this point. What is his current attitude toward his earlier years?

Social Status, Cultural and Ethnic Background—How have these shaped her? Is she an insider or outsider in her current milieu?

Significant Relationships—Parents, siblings, spouse, children, past and present lovers, friends. How have these people influenced or affected him? What is the state of their current relationships?

Residence—Town, neighborhood, type of abode. How does she feel about living there? What kind of environment has she created for herself in her personal spaces (home, office)?

Education—What type and how much? To what uses has his education been put? Was his education the kind he wanted or felt he deserved?

Occupation or Profession—What does she do for a living? Is she good at it? Does she find it enjoyable or rewarding? Is she happy with the status and remuneration it gives her? How is she thought of by her colleagues, superiors, and subordinates? Is she more comfortable in a secure job or is she an entrepreneurial type?

Religion, Superstitions, Social and Political Beliefs—What shapes his worldview? How serious a believer is he? How sincere? How tolerant or intolerant of others' views?

3. PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Personality—What is his basic temperament and outlook on life? Is he an optimist or a pessimist? Outgoing or reclusive? Emotional or self-contained? Trusting or suspicious? Slow or quick to anger?

Speech Patterns—Is she articulate? Glib? Tongue-tied? What sort of jargon or slang does she use? Is there a regional flavor to her speech?

Attitude toward Self—What does he like and not like about himself? What does he count as his greatest successes and failures? How would he change himself? Does he see himself as others see him?

Talents, Interests, Passions—What is she especially good at? What does she love to do, or to have? What would be her perfect day? Habits and Routines—How does he get through a typical day? How does he respond if his regular routines are interrupted?

Response to Stress—Does she fall apart in a crisis? Come through it fine and then fall apart? Not notice the crisis? Create the crisis in the first place?

Humor—What makes him laugh? What kind of jokes does he tell? Hot Buttons—What drives her crazy? What are her pet peeves? Attitude toward the Opposite Sex—And attitude toward sex in general. How did these attitudes develop?

Attitude toward Authority—Does he see the police, or his boss, or his parent, as friend or foe?

Fondest Dream and Darkest Fear—These can be strong motivating factors.

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