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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXVII

I have spoken before about the drawbacks of long and detailed descriptions. But here I would like to concentrate on how character development is created most satisfactorily, not in description, but in action.

In defining someone by their possessions, you do not do yourself a favour by writing, “She owned a Saab convertible,” nor by showing her driving to the supermarket in it. But when you show her trawling the city streets of Birmingham on a hot summer night, looking for a lost child, in the same vehicle, its top fully retracted, then your readers will learn something about the character.

“She owned a Saab convertible,” may be useful in indicating wealth, social standing or something about the character’s own image of herself, but it’s always going to be dull, whereas the Birmingham example tells us just as much about these things while furthering the plot and allowing us to develop on the basic facts of character.

You can use inactive ways of furthering character, but in fairness to yourself and your readers you should consider first searching for ways to develop character as much as possible in action and in friction with other characters. The contrast with a woman at home in her kitchen watching the washing go through its cycle, no matter what earth-shattering thoughts she may be having, is no contest.

4 Responses to “Learning to Write XXVII”

  1. Again, a case of ‘show’ & not ‘tell’ but in a more dramatic, effective way.

    jb says: You can’t tell it too many times, Susan.

  2. Paul says:

    Do we define ourselves by what we own, or does what we own, become who we are? – as with how we earn our living? or the religion/or not, we may practice?

    jb says: Hi Paul. In real life we define ourselves and others in a variety of ways. One of them may well be in terms of possessions, or in terms of faith or lack of faith. In the quest for personal identity we draw on profession, gender, ethnicity, genetic inheritance, family, clan, nation, etc. etc. Humans tend to look to something they regard as permanent (or more permanent than they feel themselves to be) with which to define their identity. “I’m Basque,” or “I’m Catalan,” etc. aligning themselves with the culture of the area but also the land itself, the rock formations, the land-scape.
    But in fiction we simplify or amplify certain aspects of identity, just as we simplify or amplify certain aspects of dialogue. So we may very well define a materialistic person in terms of their possessions, as they, perhaps, would do themselves. And we may identify or define a pious man, or someone with a simplistic outlook on life in terms of their faith or their adherence to an absolute political stance.
    But you were looking, I think, to tease out a chicken or egg situation. I don’t know which comes first, I only know that they can’t exist independently of each other. Can I separate what I own from the me who owns it? Only occasionally.

  3. blue girl says:

    Great piece of advice. I love when you write these sort of things and I hope this will stick with me.


    jb says: Hi Blue girl. It’s good to hear it hit the spot.

  4. trevor johnson says:

    Paul, if you are interested in defining man by his possessions and the things man owns beginning to instead own him as a theme, you should check out Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club is the best example, but it’s a recurring theme in a lot of his work.