Show Don’t Tell

Now that we have our characters, we have to present them in a way that makes sense to the reader. And very rarely should that presentation happen as a description block – for instance, we wouldn’t come to Sue like this:

Sue, who has a slight limp and was always singing under her breath because she wanted to be a pop star and always deflected the blame to other people which she learned to do as a child because her father would beat her over every mistake when he was in an alcoholic rage, approached the table.

Nor would we do it like this:

Sue, who stands 5’3” in flats and has blond curly hair, approached the table.

These are what we call tells, and they don’t help to engage the reader and keep them reading; instead, they produce an effect not unlike sitting in a history lecture with a teacher that simply recites dates over and over again; in other words, they’ll put the reader to sleep.

Instead, we want to show the reader the character, so that it creates a mental movie about what is going on. It might look something like this:

Sue approached the table, the light from the window catching her blonde curls and wreathing her head in a halo. As she passed other patrons, their conversation would cease as they tried to catch the tune she was quietly singing to herself – today she was singing Lana del Rey’s Young and Beautiful, her voice perfectly suited to the haunting melody.

That last paragraph paints a picture – we can see her moving among the tables, the effect she has on the crowd, and she becomes interesting to us. We accomplish this by focusing on specific details about the character – we don’t need to (nor should we ever) find out everything about them at one time. As such, we have to ask ourselves one question: What is most important about the character at the moment, and how do we highlight that? When we first meet them, the most important features are a basic description, both of their physical appearance and their personality. The more we interact with a character, the more they reveal to us, but it’s a slow process. Small quirks and traits come with long observation, while other qualities of a character might not come to play until the character in question trusts the main character and confides in them.

Of course, the aspects of a character are what motivates their actions, so even though the main character doesn’t know everything about this person, they’ll still act according to their natures – this will often lead to other characters making assumptions about them and acting on those assumptions, which can lead to conflict. For example, let’s say Sue constantly avoids our main character, the Wizard, because he looks like her alcoholic and abusive dad. However, the wizard might assume that her avoidance of him has to do with a charm against demons that he carries, thus leading him to assume that she is a demon of some sort, which would in turn lead to him suspecting her for a string of ritual murders. This is not only a great way to further the story, but to bring a secondary character into the story at large, for good or ill.

Adapted from Evil Hat Productions’ Dresden Files RPG

Creating Scenes

Scenes are the places where your story happens, but they’re more than just the background sliding past. Scenes themselves should also be alive, have aspects and quirks, the places where things happen.

Quick: which is more interesting, the three story brownstone house, or the Anderson place, a dilapidated three story house full of shadows and cobwebs, where the ghost of the original owner still stalks the halls?

Both are the same place, but the first is generic and easily forgotten, while the second generates something substantial for the reader to hold on to (and for our characters to do!). In this way, scenes are like characters unto themselves – they need to have depth.

A scene can be as complex or narrow as the story requires – an entire block of houses or a single room are equally important. And, in the same way, they run the gamut of complexity; for example, a new development where all the houses are the same style could be EVERYTHING’S THE SAME, while a section of town where there are several of these developments together could be called DEVELOPMENT HELL.

Like with characters, these aspects should both describe the scene while also suggest uses – for instance, DEVELOPMENT HELL could be used in a story as a place where everything is being constructed the same way with exacting details because the developer is creating a summoning circle out of the houses and streets to bring an elder god into the world. In this case, it would be a literal development to create hell. Or, perhaps, it could simply refer to the idea that the only things that the governing body will approve are this one style of houses because that style is the same as one where the head of the approving committee’s deceased daughter used to live. So now, not only is it awful because EVERYTHING’S THE SAME but it’s also a personal hell for that individual.

Of course, the best aspects are the ones that interact in a way with our characters. If we’re in a warehouse we could describe it as THE SHADOWS MOVE, SPIDERS NEST, and UNNATURAL CALM. Perhaps our intrepid wizard came here to investigate rumors of giant spiders – now, we know why the shadows move, as these spiders are swift and stealthy ambush hunters, that this is their actual nest, and there is an unnatural calm in the area because the spiders have eaten or chased away everything else.

Now, while in this warehouse, these aspects can also be used by our characters – THE SHADOWS MOVE means that there has to be a lot of shadows, so he could use them to move stealthily (if, perhaps, a bit unwisely) about the warehouse. UNNATURAL CALM means that without the other noises it should be easier for him to hear what is happening around him. And SPIDERS NEST not only describes the area, but also suggests a goal; perhaps there is a literal nest in the warehouse that contains what he is after, or that he needs to go destroy, or perhaps the spiders are nesting.

Some scenes, like the warehouse above, are fine just the way they are. Others, however, also involve a Face – a character that is intricately tied to and represents that scene.

A Face is created like any other secondary character, however their High Aspect (see DEVELOPING CHARACTERS) has to be related to the location in question. For instance, if your main character is visiting a gym, the Face might be the head trainer (a person intricately tied to the location). This trainer’s High Aspect might be as simple (and boring) as HEAD TRAINER OF GINA’S GYM, or it could suggest something more sinister, like FRONT MAN FOR THE MAFIA – indicating that the gym is used for a nefarious purpose (laundering money, perhaps?), and this “trainer” is in charge of the operation as well as making the gym appear and act legit. No matter what, the high aspect of the Face has to mesh with the location he or she is tied to – however, a face can be replaced should something happen to him, while locations are harder to change.

Adapted from Evil Hat Productions’ Dresden Files RPG

Developing Characters

Once we’ve created characters for use, and determined which are going to have a larger role in our stories, we need to develop those that are important to the main character and to the story.
Developing characters is surprisingly easy to do; in fact, it can be as simple as a single phrase.

Let’s take, for a moment, JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings. There, he said “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” So if you have a Tolkien-style wizard character, you might give him a development line of “SUBTLE BUT QUICK TO ANGER.” We call these developing lines aspects, and all good aspects are ones that help further a story by both pushing the characters into conflicts and helping them resolve them as well.

All non-minor characters should have at least one line such as this – it helps to define how they will react in various situations. In this way, it’s very similar to how we gave our characters depth in Character Creation, but where those are more about core concepts, development lines outline particular aspects of the character’s personality, which dictates how they react to any given situation.

There are two different ways to come up with development lines – you can fill in what you want the character to be (say, you needed a thug type you might just go ahead and fill in a couple lines: HIT IT TILL IT BREAKS, BIGGER AND BADDER THAN YOU, ANGER MISMANAGEMENT) and they’ll serve well for minor characters, but most likely it will generate something very one-dimensional.

The other way to do it is to think about the character’s past. They had to exist before the story began, and they will continue to live their lives after the story ends. As such, they’ve got at least a few lessons under their belt, and those lessons influence how they interact with the world – in other words, they become the aspects for that character. There are two kinds of aspects: high aspects and descriptive aspects.

Let’s go back to our wizard character. Through character creation we’ve decided that he’s unusually short (say, 4’8”), runs everywhere he goes, and wants enough power to protect that which is most precious to him. Since we know that being a wizard is what he is before anything else, his High Aspect could be as simple as WIZARD. However, this doesn’t indicate a use for him or any other characters; as such, it should be a little more complicated. Let’s say that our wizard used to work for an evil group, but now fights on the side of the good guys. We could go with something like REFORMED WIZARD OF THE DARK ONES – this now gives us things to play with. He could face temptations to go to his old ways, distrust from his new allies because of his past, attacks from his old group, and many other trials as well all based on this aspect.

For descriptive aspects, we think about his life up to this point – what was his childhood like? How did he discover he was a wizard? What was his first “adventure” like? Maybe we decide that his parents were very well off, but distant emotionally, so he’s always looking for love and validation of self to disastrous consequences; we could call that LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES. Perhaps he found out about his magical talent through vigorous study and determined practice; we could call that DETERMINED RESEARCHER. And let’s say that in his first “adventure” ice magic saved his life, so he defaults to it; we could call it EVERYTHING FREEZES.

Now, what do these things tell us about how he interacts with other characters and the story? Well, the first one tells us that he’s constantly falling in and out of love, so anyone in the story that he is attracted to he might pursue regardless of how it affects everything else. The second could say that he spends all his time researching, but that’s boring; instead, it could also mean that he has an incredible recall and knowledge base, making him a superb tactician, and that given enough time he can learn anything. Note, this also suggests a way to push him through the story; either hound him so he doesn’t have time and has to react, or take away his ability to do research (fire, theft, etc). The final one is fairly straightforward – it indicates his favorite way to deal with threats. However, combined with DETERMINED RESEARCHER it could also indicate other things rather than just brute force – dropping a block of ice on the enemy works fine, but what happens if you want them alive? So he could create traps – ice slides into an ice cage, for instance – for the enemy as well.

As the story progresses, these aspects can be added to, changed, or removed as well. However, the more central an aspect is to their life (in general, the older they are) the harder they are to change and the bigger the story event (or events!) to change it will be.

For instance, let’s say that in one of our stories our wizard falls in actual love – it’s a relationship built over several stories, and so now the LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES doesn’t apply. However, since it’s one of his core concepts, it won’t just disappear but will have lasting effects. Therefore, it changes – perhaps now he’s no longer looking for love, but still doesn’t feel he deserves it because of the past, so it changes to UNINTENTIONAL RELATIONSHIP SABOTEUR. Now, he’s no longer falling into the arms of random people, but his subconscious is causing him to continually try to drive away his lover. Not overtly, but small things like breaking dates without warning, forgetting things, arguing over silly things, etc.

Adapted from Evil Hat Productions’ Dresden Files RPG

Creating Characters

Characters have to serve a purpose in a story. They further the plot, threaten the main character, fall in love, dance the lambada; whatever their actions are, they have to serve a purpose in furthering some aspect of the story.

The problem with this is that these characters are flat – they’re unbelievable and difficult to relate to. They’re written to serve a purpose, and once they’re off the page they no longer exist. The issue with that is the reader will forget them as well. So not only do characters have to serve a purpose, but they also need dimension to be memorable.

Memorability is an odd thing – a simple description of a person, highlighting what they look like, is a good way to get a general grasp of their appearance, but unless they look like the elephant man, they won’t be very memorable. Think about your favorite book; now describe the main character. Pick another book, describe that main character. And another – odds are the descriptions you’ve given are all very similar to each other. This is because no matter what description is written on the page, our brain insists on imposing our own particular view of the world on them (consequently, this is also why movie characters never appear the way you expect them to). That’s why everyone’s description will be different.

So how do we make a character memorable? There are three basic considerations that will help make characters more memorable:

Physical abnormalities – The most difficult and least important of the three, this is where you remark about something remarkable in their appearance – a jagged scar over their left eye, a white streak in their hair, etc. The problem with this is you can’t simply mention it once, but it has to serve a purpose of its own. And if you mention it too much, you’ll get on your readers’ nerves. A fine line to walk indeed.

Personality quirks – Does your character always talk formally? Do they refer to everyone by their full name? Do they always wear the same suit, or have to eat the same food for breakfast every day? Do they approach every situation with a joke? Whatever their personality, it should shine through as well – this is also a great way to create conflict between two characters with conflicting personalities and, as we all know, conflict is interesting.

Personal wants – This is the big one, the thing that every character must have. What do they want? What is their goal? It doesn’t matter if they want to rule the world or just wear shiny pants, every character wants something in their life, long term or short term, and this want is what drives their actions, that moves them through the story, dictates their actions and reactions to different situations.

Now, while these three things are important in generating characters, they don’t have to be complex. For anyone – including the main character – you could list three simple things about them (one in each category) and have a workable character. For example, let’s say you have a character you want to build, and you’ve decided to name them Sue. Now, Sue has to have a purpose, so simply write down three facts about Sue. For instance, Sue is a person who always deflects blame away from herself (personality), walks with a slight limp (physical) and desires more than anything to become a singing star.

That’s all it takes to create a usable character – perhaps Sue is the waitress in a diner the main character visits once, and if so that’s all we need to know. She moves quickly but with small steps to hide her limp as she goes between her tables, singing quietly to herself when she’s not interacting with a customer, and any time something goes wrong it’s automatically the kitchen’s fault.
The larger the character, the more detailed these facts will be and, often, the more of these facts there will be. So, let’s say Sue has entered a relationship with our main character. Now, we begin to discover that her limp and the deflection both come from a traumatic past – perhaps her father was an abusive alcoholic, and one day he broke her leg so now she has a limp. Not wanting to relive that event, she developed the habit of deflecting all blame away from herself so she wasn’t the one who got punished. This also left emotional scars, so now – even though her voice is beautiful – she doesn’t believe that she is a good singer so she’s never applied herself for fear of rejection; the dreams are better than the possibility of a possibly awful reality.

Now, we have Sue’s troubles; as a major character, her life gains dimension and we begin to see what makes her tick. We have a way to progress her story – perhaps through her life with the main character she gains enough confidence to pursue her dreams? – and that progression dictates how she moves through the story. Now Sue, once a stereotypical waitress character that was immediately forgotten, has drive, purpose, and is memorable.

Adapted from Evil Hat Productions’ Dresden Files RPG