Friday, February 13, 2009

Little Things Mean A Lot

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I'm easily distracted, I must admit. Last Sunday, during the church service, my mind wandered. I happened to notice a cute child, maybe two or three years old, about ten pews ahead of me. I watched one of the regulars a few pews down from her smile at the child. The child shyly put her head down.

At times, when I walk down the street with my dog, Rascal, sometimes a passerby will smile at her. Rascal picks up the friendly vibes and wags her tail.

Other times, when I'm walking to the train station in the morning, a driver, instead of stopping at the stop sign, will roll through to prevent me from crossing.

What do these little things have to do with writing?

Simple. Instead of telling the reader your character is nice or impatient, show it by using such small actions. Or, mix the character up a little, so that person is not all mean or all nice. Readers like to think back to little clues, so don't forget to offer them.

Can you think of other ways to show a person's character without beating a reader over the head with it? Please share.


  1. Actions are a wonderful way to show the character of the character. Oftentimes, it's the accumulation of actions, too. In your church example, you (the author) wouldn't say that Morgan(the character) was distracted. That's the point of the action, to show instead of the author telling. But the first action might be interpreted by the reader as Morgan is uninterested in the sermon. But then Morgan does something else that shows the reader she is in fact easily distracted ... or she is overcome with guilt because of the argument she had with her boyfriend the night before ... or the child's face reminds her of the young girl she has chained in her basement. None of those have to be told in one action. But a series of actions lets the reader discover the character of the character, which is always more fun than being told what to think.

    Great post Morgan. It got me to thinking.

  2. Actions and dialog. In my current wip, an older woman is not a pleasant person. The reader knows that fairly quickly from both her actions and her vicious mouth. I have thoroughly enjoyed thinking up wicked things for her to say.

  3. Since our book is non-fiction, it's a little hard for me to identify with this post. Sounds like a good tip to me.


  4. I've always given my characters little quirks. Mark would pace incessantly in circles while pondering a situation. Josh had his Nat "king" Cole records blaring whenever he was troubled. I've always tried to add something special to each character to give them their own unique personality.

  5. Just make sure you remember your character clues. If not, the character may do something completely OUT-of-character later, and the reader will be pulled out of the story. You can use this to good purpose, but make sure it's intentional and for the good of the story. I mean, we all do things that are out-of-character, but something is usually driving that. People who are all-over-the-map with personality quirks are usually... schizophrenic, right? Something to think about, and use to advantage.


  6. so far my best technique is dialogue between the characters. We 'see' what each is doing not only by what is said, but how.

  7. What a delightful post! I think that actions can really bring out a person's personality - both in writing and in real life.
    Dialog - both internal and external aid in showing character's personalities, also, I think. They say actions speak louder than words and I completely agree with that.

  8. I tried a different tack in my soon to be published novel, Latter-Day Cipher (Moody Press, April 2009)--

    The villain is a very literate man, and often quotes poetry, but he is not revealed as the villain until late in the novel. However, I placed clues throughout the book that had to do with poetry (the title of an obscure book on his bookshelf, for instance).

    Some might think that I would be giving away his identity, but I've found that even the most literate readers who've read it pre-publication didn't catch the clues, though they were "hiding in plain sight" the whole time.


    Latayne C Scott

  9. Good post, Morgan, and interesting comments. Helen, I didn't recognize you in the new picture. Was so used to the "mysterious you" one. :-)

  10. I finished a manuscript out that I finished last year. It was bad. I'd done more telling than showing. I'm trying to fix it, but it's a struggle.

  11. I think it is easy to slip into the role of telling rather than showing. Actions are truly wonderful in not only showing personality but in the over-all development of a character.

    A fellow writer friend of mine called one of my heroine's actions a tell sign, whenever she is nervous or uncomfortable, she toys with a pendant she's had since childhood. I also agree with the fellow commenter who talked about both internal and external dialogue. These are great ways to support character actions.

  12. Helen mentioned accumulation of actions. That kind of reminds me of comedians, like Jay Leno. They tell a joke, then keep referring back to it with small clips inserted in other jokes. Then the whopper joke is told combining it all, cracking everyone up.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. Morgan what great advice and so succinctly put. I will definitely be implementing it straight away.

    Dani- a good caution, I might refer back to character bibles. We need to keep written track of these types of revealing actions too.

  14. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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