character details, character development, interacting with scene, narrative telling, over describing, show don't tell, step-by-step action, The Writing Process, writing props, writing tips
Yes, I’m treading into dreaded territory again. Our favorite axiom as writers: show, don’t tell.
Well, I hate to make it more complicated, but sometimes, showing too much becomes telling.
I could show this to you in a lot of ways, but let’s hone in on one: dropping too many details all at once.
Now, it’s easy to admit that I have issues with scene development. I’m not a fan of dumping all of the spatial information right up front unless it directly connects with the tension. Instead, I like to suggest filtering details through a scene so that the characters can interact with what’s around them rather than being told what’s where.
This is part of stylistic preference, and I don’t want to tell anyone that theirs is wrong. It’s just the way I prefer to both write and interact with the story as a reader.
But let me delve even deeper to one of my giant pet peeves—something that affects the trifecta of writer, reader, and editor. I’m serious; I skim past this stuff when it’s in a book, and I hate the waste of words.
That’s the uber-detailed depiction of a character. Eye color, hair color, skin color, height, weight, clothes and the way they fit, shoes, nail color, their half-hearted smile and cupid lips, the button nose…are you getting sick of me listing details yet? I’m sure sick of it.
My feelings aside, I’ve read some interesting research and heard theories from countless writing professors that say the same thing. Too many details like this all at once creates a blank spot in our memories for the character because we can’t remember them all. They get jumbled together with all of the other characters and their giant lists of features.
The best way to circumvent this is to pick and choose which details set the character apart from the others.
A character with rainbow eyes? Sure, mention those. That’s not typical.
A scar on their lip. Go for it.
Are they always flipping their hair from their eyes to no avail?
Got a ring on their finger that they turn when they’re anxious or nervous?
Their height make them loom over everyone?
Always tugging at the cuffs on their shirt?
See how these create images, props as they were, to identify a character without the whole shebang? Pair these with their distinct attitude as described by their dialect and general actions, and this is an excellent way to develop character without relying on over description. But be sure to use them with purpose.
Besides, readers are smart and fill in a lot of the blanks themselves. The way I imagine Boden isn’t the same as the way every reader I’ve come in contact with does. And you know what, I’m okay with that. Their version involves them in my world. I’m honored they want to spend time there.
My last note, over description can happen in action as well. Something I often refer to as step-by-step action. The needless description of every movement a character makes to be sure we see it exactly as the writer does. Let’s just say, it becomes telling real quick.
Let me know if you want a full review of this in a future post. I’m sure I can go on about it for a while.
Got a way you love to identify your characters? Share them in the comments below!