show don’t tell

Creating Your Character’s Dominant Impression

In an earlier post, I talked in depth about dynamic characterization. Now I’d like to show you how to use dynamic characterization to create a character’s dominant impression.

A character’s dominant impression is the way you’d describe the character if you had to sum him/her up in a single phrase—just the bare essentials. The things you’d mention briefly in the back cover blurb.

For example:

  • thief with trust issues
  • space marine with a strict code of honor
  • ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people

Don’t try to cram every last detail into your dominant impression statement—focus on capturing the big picture. Here’s a simple process for homing in on the two most important things about your character:

  1. Identify the character’s primary role in the story. This role will be relevant to the external arc, the role or trait related to the story goal. (thief, space marine, ruthless mobster)
  1. Identify the character’s main trait or issue. This issue or trait will be relevant to the internal arc, which supports the theme of the story. (distrustful, strict code of honor, protective of those who are weaker)

A properly constructed dominant impression statement not only describes your character in a nutshell, but it also lets the reader know what kind of story they’re going to be reading.

For example…

“Space marine with a strict code of honor” implies that there will be spaceships, battles, aliens, cool weapons, and a good guy who’ll be sorely tempted to do the wrong thing.

“Thief with trust issues” suggests that there will be a heist, an object precious enough to be worth stealing, a character whose backstory includes a betrayal, and a second character who may or may not be trustworthy.

“Ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people” hints at an ambiguous character with a gray morality, a story about loyalty, crimes committed, police evaded, and perhaps a bittersweet ending where justice may or may not have been done.

Once you’ve nailed down a character’s dominant impression, the next step is to figure out how you’re going to demonstrate it to the reader. How are we going to do it? Using those character expression elements, what can we tell about our space marine without knowing anything else about him?

Dialogue: He probably has the habit of saying ma’am or sir when addressing a stranger or an authority figure. He’ll use military slang that civilians wouldn’t get. If he’s been fighting against or alongside aliens, he’s sure to have picked up some words from their language. Some of those will undoubtedly be alien swear words.

Since he has that strict code of honor, he’d never promise anything unless he’s sure he could keep that promise.

Actions (voluntary and involuntary): If he’s been fighting recently on a high-gravity world, we might show him making an effort to move in a relaxed way as he adjusts to being back in normal gravity. Or if he’s just left a low-gravity world, we might see him working harder to take actions that would normally be effortless.

Does his hand unconsciously move to his weapon holster when he’s threatened, even if he’s off-duty and unarmed?

If he’s used to being cooped up in a ship or on a space station, does he get vertigo when he gets planetside? Does he try to cope with the vertigo by squinting, or focusing on a point straight ahead of him, or rubbing his eyes a lot, or leaning against things whenever possible?

Body Language: He might unconsciously snap to attention when encountering an authority figure, or stand at “parade rest” during conversations.

He can probably tell if a person has military training or not just from the way they move.

Thoughts and Feelings: Does he revel in the fact that he’s on leave, or does he miss the structured days and clear rules that he’s used to when on duty?

Does he compare the food he eats at his favorite hole-in-the-wall diner with military rations and grumble that civilians don’t know how good they’ve got it?

Does he have any resentment toward the civilians he risks his life to protect? Is he proud of the fact that he makes their safe lives possible?

Does he believe that the war he’s been fighting is for a just cause, or is soldiering just a job he does because he’s good at it?

Having experienced other aliens’ cultures, he’ll have opinions about them. Have these other cultures opened his mind to other ways of doing things and made him critical of some elements of human culture? Or did they reinforce his belief that the human way is the best way?

What are the tenets that make up the code of honor that he follows? How about:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Military personnel tend to get vaccinations for all sorts of diseases that a civilian wouldn’t be exposed to. Is his arm sore from his most recent round of shots? Has he had any health problems as a result of being overvaccinated?

Does the future government put chips in soldiers so that their bodies can be tracked at all times (and retrieved in the event of death)? If so, can he tell the chip is there? Does it have side effects? Does he do anything to interfere with its functioning? Or worry about being under surveillance?

Habits: Does he polish his boots? Clean his weapons every night whether he’s used them or not? Sleep in four hour increments so it’ll be easier to adjust to taking watches when he goes back on duty? Does he own more than he can fit in his rucksack?

Do the space marines issue any sort of pharmaceuticals to their troops to enhance strength, speed, alertness, perception, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, protect against radiation, etc? If so, is he dependent on any of them, or can he stop taking them when he’s on leave? Does he experience any side effects from them? Does he go through withdrawal if he misses a dose?

Has he learned to be a light sleeper? Or to take combat naps whenever he’s got five minutes of free time? Does he tend to dream about past missions or dead comrades when he sleeps?

Does he do hundreds of pushups and situps on his off-days, to stay in shape, or is he blissfully happy to skip a day physical exertion?

Quirks: Do the space marines have a rivalry with another military branch? (I bet they do!) How does he feel about this rivalry—like he needs to defend the marines’ honor, or like it’s a stupid thing to fight over?

As a soldier, he’s going to know a lot more about weapons than the average civilian, and given a choice between two guns that might look identical to you and I, he would probably have a strong preference for one of them.

Maybe he has a hard time feeling safe even when he’s far away from the battlefield, and he improvises booby-traps or alarms to secure his room before bed each night.

In the process of traveling to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and killing it, he may also have acquired a taste for alien foods—maybe things that the average person wouldn’t even consider edible.

Clothing, Accessories and Grooming: He’d probably have a military cut (makes his helmet fit better and it’s easier to keep clean in unsanitary conditions). Does he let it get shaggy when he’s on leave, or does he prefer to keep it short?

No doubt he carries a military ID. Does it give him any special privileges? Or limit his access to anything?

How about footwear—does he feel naked unless he’s wearing combat boots? Or is he delighted to slip off the heavy clompers and put on some running shoes?

Does he wear fatigues even when he doesn’t have to? Or does he miss wearing street clothes? If he wears street clothes, do all his tee-shirts have military logos and slogans on them? If you saw him dressed normally when he’s on leave, would you be able to tell that he’s a marine by what he’s wearing?

Does he have a class ring or a unit ring? A promise ring from his girl back home?

Tools and Special Objects: He might feel uncomfortable unarmed, even in places where a civilian might feel safe, and have a permit to carry a weapon (concealed or openly).

Has he named his favorite gun?

What if the knife he always carries in his boot sheath belonged to his grandfather and his father?

Meaningful Locations: The military cemetery where both his grandfather and father were buried? The monument to the war his father died in? The small town where he grew up, and which he dreams of returning to once he’s ready to retire from the service?

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: If he’s new to the corps, he might be unscarred, and if he’s a sensitive soul, he might even feel guilty that he’s whole while some of his friends are scarred or maimed.

But if he’s seen any amount of action, he’s probably got at least one scar. How about we give him surgical scars on that wounded knee, and a cluster of small scars on his shoulder where he caught some shrapnel?

It’s also not uncommon for military men to have tattoos of some sort—how about we give him one that shows the space marines glyph, and another small one that he got along with the surviving members of his unit after a particularly dangerous mission?

Depending on what kind of future you think he might be from, our marine might also be genetically or cybernetically enhanced in some way. A bionic eye with night vision and the ability to see different types of radiation? A reinforced skeleton and accelerated healing, to make him harder to kill? Genetically-enhanced muscles to allow him to fight on a planet with gravity three times stronger than Earth’s? Gene therapy that makes him capable of traveling through hyperspace without the usual side effects?

Secrets: Out there on the battlefield, he’s probably seen some pretty awful things. Some of those awful things may have been done by his fellow soldiers. Some he might have done himself. He probably doesn’t want to talk about them. Or does he? Will he get drunk enough to tell a stranger at a bar that he saw an innocent village massacred by mistake? Or that the recently-decorated lieutenant who’s been on all the new feeds really isn’t a hero at all?

He knows what’s really happening on the ground, too—he knows which parts of the news reports are true and which are not. If the government isn’t giving the folks back home the whole story about the war, our hero has to choose between keeping his mouth shut or spilling the beans. If he spills the beans, he’s going to have to worry about repercussions.

Relationships: How close is he to the others in his unit? Has he lost touch with all his former civilian friends? Does he have a girl in every port? Or an alien girlfriend waiting for him back on her homeworld?

Also, how do civilians react to him? Does he get called jarhead? Does he get lectured by a pacifist while he’s trying to enjoy a cup of coffee? Are others afraid of him when they find out he’s a marine? Does he get treated with respect when he’s in uniform? Does he not talk about his job because there’s always some moron who asks him how many people/aliens he’s killed? Do shopkeepers thank him for his service when he shows his military ID for a discount? Does his little brother want to hear all about the battles he’s been in?

Now let’s contemplate his code of honor. We don’t want to just tell the reader what is code is, we want to show him living by it. Here’s the basic tenets:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Polite to and protective of women. Ways we could show this:

  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being rude to him, and show him keeping his temper and treating her politely anyway.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman being treated disrespectfully, and show him intervening—perhaps criticizing the rude shopkeeper, or escorting her to a safe place so that the juvenile delinquents who were harassing her back off.
  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being physically abused or threatened, and show him stepping in to defend the woman.
  • Let him meet up with a bitchy ex-girlfriend, and show him resisting the urge to argue with her when she snipes at him.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman in need of help, and show him helping her even though it’s inconvenient for him.

Never throws the first punch. Put him in a situation where someone is threatening or taunting him, and let us see him try to resolve the conflict without fighting. Or put him in a situation where a suspicious character appears, and it would be convenient for him to take the potential troublemaker out of commission—but show our hero waiting until the trouble starts before he tackles the troublemaker.

Doesn’t tolerate bullies. Put him in a situation where he has to either ignore someone being bullied or intervene. Make it easy for him to walk away and tough to drive the bullies off. That way, when he stands up to the bullies on the weaker person’s behalf, we’ll know his actions came from his belief that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak.

Always backs up his buddies. Show one of his buddies doing something stupid or foolish or just plain wrong—and let us see our marine sticking around to extricate his buddy from the resulting difficult situation. Show him sacrificing something to get his friends out of trouble even—or especially—when they don’t deserve the help.

Notice that all of these are things that you can show through interior monologue, action and dialogue. They’re showable. We won’t need exposition to tell the reader how your hero is affected by being a space marine if we show even a quarter of the things we brainstormed here.

Sure, we could have just written down on a character worksheet that our space marine is chivalrous, loyal, and honorable. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful in understanding how our space marine behaves.

Chivalrous is abstract. Polite to women suggests a range of specific behaviors that your character can perform.

Loyal is abstract. Willing to fight when one of his fellow soldiers gets drunk and mouths off to a group of civvies in a bar is something you can turn into a scene.

Honorable is abstract. Refuses to kill a non-combatant even when ordered to by a superior shows the reader where this space marine’s heart is when push comes to shove.

Still with me?

That was a lot, I know…but we did it one small step at a time, and you can build complex, multi-dimensional characters the same way.

And notice that we haven’t even looked yet at this character’s personality traits–all we’ve talked about so far are the ways this character has been shaped by his experience of being a solider in a futuristic setting. We still don’t know if he’s shy or sarcastic or philosophical or compassionate.

Now that you’ve seen how it works–I challenge to choose a character you’re developing for NaNoWriMo or a character from your work-in-progress, and create his/her dominant impression.

Want some help getting ready for NaNoWriMo? Check out The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance. Both of these workbooks contain a unique story blueprint and brainstorming prompts that show you how to plot your novel one day at a time and come out with a well-structured story.

What’s the difference between the two workbooks? The 30 Day Novel Success Journal is intended for a story with a single character growth arc. The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance results in a story where the two main characters have growth arcs as they fall in love with each other.

Who Are You Writing For?

It’s an often-debated question:  should you write for the market, or write for yourself?

In other words, should you write an Amish romance because they’re hot right now?

Or should you write that first contact story where the alien visitor has to prove he didn’t murder the head of the United Nations as a prelude to invasion while also wooing the Earthling of his dreams?

It’s tempting to try to write to the market. From the unpublished perspective, it seems like it would be easier to write a bestseller if you’re writing in a category that’s already selling well.

But not only is it harder to write something you don’t care about, it’s also inevitably too late–by the time a trend has crested and it’s clear that vampires or medical romances or zombie epidemics are the big thing, you’re a few months to a year behind the trend. By the time your Harry Potter-ish story is ready to submit to an agent or editor, readers are looking for the next big thing.  Not to mention the fact that you’ll be submitting to an agent or editor who’s already been inundated with copycat stories for months.

Writing to the market is a little easier if you’re self-publishing and you write fast.  If you can write a novella that rides the coattails of someone else’s success and get it out there just after the trend has crested, you have a chance of getting in front of readers who are looking for the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games. Then they’ll be primed for more work for you in that subgenre.

But that’s a big risk. And it supposes that you can produce high-quality fiction on a deadline that’s enough like the trendsetter you’re following to satisfy fans without feeling derivative.  Unless you’re very good, you can spend your whole career chasing the market without ever catching a spot on the bestseller list.

Writing for yourself is a big risk too.  It’s easy to end up making the story so specific to your own personal interests that it’s difficult for others to get into the story. Who else wants to read a story about a chocolate-chomping, bellydancing, needle-pointing detective who tracks down abducted children while falling in love with the CEO of an ecofriendly publishing company?

Um. I think the answer to that one is obvious.

A lot of experienced writers recommend that you write for a particular person–someone you know who represents your target readers.  If you don’t know someone personally who would be your target reader, imagine someone who fits the bill based on what you know about your intended audience.

That’s better. It makes it easier to identify who you’re trying to make happy.

But even writing for your target reader, you run the risk of toning yourself down to meet that person’s expectations–which can limit you from breaking new ground and creating a story that blows readers’ minds.

In other words, you may find yourself writing what that person is going to expect to read rather than being true to your creative vision and creating something really new and different.

So are you screwed?  Do you have to choose between writing stories that very few people want to read or writing stories that everyone wanted to read last year?

No. Not if you write to human nature.

What great authors do is they create strange new worlds for readers to explore–but they make those worlds accessible to the reader by writing to human nature.

Before Harry Potter, “kids at wizard school” was a small subgenre read by a few hardcore fantasy fans. J.K. Rowling not only wrote a fantastic story in this subgenre, she made Harry’s world so accessible that millions of readers–many of whom were NOT fantasy fans–found their way into that world.

How did she do it?

She made the main characters accessible by:

  • Using techniques that caused readers to have both sympathy and empathy for them
  • Giving them backstories and personality traits that explained their actions in the present
  • Showing their emotional reactions to events clearly, so that the reader knew how to interpret those events
  • Depicting familiar relationships and emotional dynamics embedded in her fantasy world, making even the mysterious characters comprehensible to the reader at an emotional level

She made the world accessible by:

  • Piquing the reader’s curiosity, then giving the characters a reason to explore what the reader was curious about
  • Showing the reader how things worked in this world instead of telling us
  • Including familiar elements along with the strange and magical elements, so that those familiar elements served as a gateway to the unfamiliar
  • Feeding one new thing to the reader at a time, so that the reader didn’t get overwhelmed with strangeness

In other words, she skillfully utilized techniques for writing immersive fiction to make it possible for people who’d never read a fantasy book in their lives to understand Harry Potter’s world.

Rowling understood that you can’t just plunk readers down into a completely foreign environment and expect them to connect to this new world. She gave her readers a myriad of familiar elements that helped explain the unfamiliar, and she gave the reader likable, interesting, sympathetic characters–characters that the reader was willing to follow deep into the world.

She understood that we are intrigued by the new, the strange, the mysterious–but that we also need a starting point for exploring it. Harry Potter’s world has plenty of windows for us to peek in…and doors to walk through.

You can do this with your own fiction.

Don’t ask yourself, “What does the market want me to write?”

Don’t ask yourself, “What does my target reader want me to write?”

Write what you really want to write, and ask yourself, “How can I make this accessible to my target reader?”

Editing for Emotion: How to Show What Your Characters Are Feeling

Have you ever written a scene that made your heart race and your eyes tear up—only to be told by your critique partner that it needs more emotion?

It’s a common problem. When you’re imagining the scene in your head, it’s natural for you to feel the characters’ emotions. But because you’re already feeling them, it can be hard to tell whether you’re capturing those emotions with the words you choose.

That’s okay! Just keep writing. Some emotions will make it onto the page. As for the rest—it’s easy to layer them in when you’re editing.

What are the ways that character emotions are expressed in words on the page?

  1. Dialogue
  • What characters say
  • How they say it
  • What they don’t say (change subject or leave things out)
  • When they’re silent
  • What they want to talk about and what they won’t talk about

Read through just the dialogue in the scene (out loud, if it helps) and identify the emotion the character should be feeling when speaking each line. How does this line of dialogue suggest or hint at that emotion? Identify how the emotion is expressed on the page:

  • Content
  • Word choice
  • Curse words, exclamations
  • Unusual grammatical constructions
  • Terse or abbreviated sentences
  • The way the character’s voice is described
  • Punctuation or formatting used for emphasis
  • Etc.

Does every line of dialogue in the scene express an emotion? If not, why not? Is the character deliberately masking their feelings? Are they delivering factual information that they don’t care about?

For each line of dialogue that is emotionally neutral, decide whether you will rewrite it to have an emotional charge. A character might say something shocking or hurtful but phrase it matter-of-factly, and that’s not a problem—in fact, the contrast between what a person says and how they say it can strengthen the emotional impact.

  1. Action
  • Voluntary physical action
  • Involuntary physical action (fidgeting, self-touching, and other unconscious movements)

The physical action in a scene is going to be directed primarily toward the characters achieving their goals, but since the drive to achieve those goals is emotional, action is a great way to externalize character emotions.

How a character chooses to perform the simplest physical action, how they interact with objects (voluntarily or not), and even which actions they choose to avoid can telegraph what he or she is feeling.

  1. Body Language/Non-Verbal communication
  • Gestures
  • Facial expression
  • Posture
  • Proximity (distance from another character or an object

Body language is an often-underutilized tool for expressing character emotion. Giving a character body language that contradicts or otherwise doesn’t match what they say is an effective way of adding subtext to dialogue.

One of my favorite resources for body language is the Center for Non-Verbal Studies’ website, The Non-Verbal Dictionary:

I also recommend reading books on body language and making lists of non-verbal behaviors that cluster together: for example, an angry person doesn’t just narrow their eyes, they may also tense their shoulders, make fists, grit their teeth, draw their eyebrows together, or snarl, depending on how angry they are, who they are angry with, if they are trying to hide their anger, etc. Once you have a list of non-verbal behaviors that cluster around the emotion of anger, you can then decide what combination of these each character might display when he’s angry in a particular situation.

  1. Thoughts and Feelings
  • Interior monologue
  • Narration
  • Visceral sensations (involuntary reactions, like a shiver or nausea)
  • Intuition (often expressed as a visceral sensation followed by a thought that interprets the sensation)

This is the most obvious way character feelings show up on the page—narration, interior monologue, and descriptions of visceral sensations. It’s important to have a good balance of these on the page, without relying on them too heavily.

What’s “too heavily”? That depends on the tone of your story, your characters’ personalities, and whether you’re writing in first person or third person (first person will usually have more of the POV character’s thoughts and feelings than third person, as in third person you want to create the illusion that the reader is witnessing events rather than being narrated to by a character).

Putting It All Together

Once you understand the four modes of emotional expression through which characters’ feelings are revealed to the reader, you can have fun with it.

You can show (or hint at) a character’s inner conflict by using conflicting modes—for example, your hero’s body language and thoughts might reveal anxiety, even though his words and actions suggest confidence.

You can subtly show conflict between two characters who seem to be working together by making sure that their respective body language expresses the conflict that both of them are working to hide on the surface.

If you’ve got a character who’s deliberately masking their emotions to other characters, you can be sure that her thoughts and feelings give hints of emotion to keep the reader connected with the character.

And you can intensify the emotional impact of a big scene by making sure all four modes slam the reader with variations of the same emotion.

Happy editing!