Being a Better Writer: Showing Small Character Details

Hello readers! And welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer! A unique installment. For several reasons, in fact! And yes, it has to do with why there was only one post last week on the site.

But first, just a forewarning that today’s post is the last installment of BaBW for the year. Why? Because it’s almost Christmas! And I need my holiday break! There will be a few other posts, but BaBW and other usual content will be on hiatus until the new year.

The second thing that makes today’s post unusual is that it is being written via my phone. Why? Well, it has to do with the lack of a second post last week. See … I threw my back out.

Badly. So badly I couldn’t even crawl. Yeah. It was misery. I got it fixed up today, but one of the doctor’s requests was a twofold “Don’t spend your day sitting” and “get a new office chair” (the old one being a very likely culprit for my problems).

So a new post didn’t happen. And since today’s is “away from keyboard” it means that I am attempting to write this with my phone. And at the mercy of autocorrect.

But if that’s what it takes … Regardless, this post might be home to a few errors more than expected, as well as shorter than is customary. But I’m doing my best here.

So, hit the jump, and let’s get started.

Okay, properly getting that jump put into place was an adventure. All right, let’s talk about showing small character details.

So let’s begin with the what and the why. What do I mean when I talk about showing small character details? I’m not referring to major character traits, but small ones. Little offside details that give our characters a bit more life but aren’t exactly essential to the plot.

For example, it could be a character’s love of musicals. This isn’t a plot detail that’s vital or important to the story, but just something that makes a character unique and, well, them.

However, while little details like this are unique and add flavor to who our characters are … Too many stories simply dump such details on the reader in a “tell” fashion, and then never allow the character to then demonstrate their supposed “love of musicals, instead settling for someone telling the character (and by association, the audience) “Hey, remember this thing about you?”

Which leads us to the why of our topic: The above issue is pretty stilted and rough to read. In fact, it’s what inspired this post: I was reading a book wherein the narration and characters informed the reader about all these small character details … but then we never saw any of them in action. The characters never acted on any of these small details. We, the audience, were simply told that they were and then expected to simply decide that was enough.

In a way, these “traits” were little more than decals on a car, such as a NASCAR racer. They weren’t traits that mattered at all. They were “slapped on” like an advertisement on the side of a racecar, one that could be removed and replaced at any moment with no real difference to the function or performance of the car itself.

Which we shouldn’t want with our small character traits. Our only exposure to them shouldn’t be a list, referenced once or maybe twice and never seen again. Our only exposure to “this character likes musicals” shouldn’t be another character telling us once or twice “Hey, this character likes musicals.”

Instead of character decals, what we should aim for instead is character trim.

Okay, this requires a little more explanation. I don’t mean “trim down.” By trim I mean like trim on a car (going back to our racing analogy), ie small bits of material that effect the handling and performance of the vehicle. Trim might be the plastic shaping of a side mirror, or the bits and pieces that shape the front grill to manage airflow.

In other words, they’re small pieces that may not have as much of an impact as say, the tires, but still provide a noticable effect to the functioning of the vehicle. Small, but discernable.

This is why, by the way, automotive manufacturers spend so much R&D on small elements like trim. It adds up!

But the point is that our small character details should be like trim, not like a decal. The audience shouldn’t just be told that a character likes musicals. They should be shown it.

Now again, these aren’t large character traits. These are small. Straightforward. We don’t need a huge impact from “liking musicals.” It can be something as simple as the character humming showtimes when they’re “in the zone” or deciding to watch a new one when the characters aren’t busy.

Small and simple is key here. We don’t need paragraph after paragraph on this trait. It’s a small trait. But we don’t want to be told it exists, we as readers want to see it exists. It needs, in some way, to exert influence on the character whose trait it is. This makes it more than an item on a list. It makes it a part of who they are.

It makes it trim.

So don’t just tell the audience what minor traits your characters have. Let them show it too. It doesn’t have to be grand or massive. Just … part of who your characters are.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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