Monday, September 10, 2012

More Show vs. Tell: Characterization

Terry W. Ervin, II, teaches English, writes books/articles/blogs, and is a local politician for his community.
Author Terry W. Irvin, II
Flank Hawk is Terry’s flagship book in the First Civilization’s Legacy series. It caught my interest a few years ago with its amazing characterization beginning on the very first page. Between a most creative plot and strong characters, I could not put the book down. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes fast pace, fleshed-out characters and unexpected twists.
I invited Terry as a master of characterization to do an interview for the benefit of my fellow writers. Here it is:

Dean:  Hi Terry, thank you for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to talk with us about characterization.

Terry:  It’s my pleasure. In addition to plot, character development drives my stories. Whether it is a main character like Krish, the unassuming hero in Flank Hawk, or the supporting role of the Colonel of the West and his gargoyle assistant/sidekick, characterization brings life to the story.

Dean:  I’ve read Flank Hawk and you’re right. All the characters felt real, despite vastly differing personalities and motivations. Characterization covers many topics. Can we narrow the scope of this conversation to the show versus tell concept?

Terry:  Sure, Dean. Characterization is an important element in almost every work of fiction, whether it is a short story, a novel, or anywhere in between. Writers have two options:

DIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which tells what the character is like.

INDIRECT CHARACTERIZATION, which reveals information about a character and his personality through the character's thoughts, words, actions, and appearance. It also shows how others respond to that target person, including what they think and say about him.

Dean:  Is one method of characterization better than the other?

Terry:  An alert writer will recognize that the two methods of characterization fall under the decision to “show” or to “tell.” Indirect characterization “shows” the reader. Direct characterization “tells” the reader.

As with most “show” versus “tell” decisions, “showing” is more interesting and engaging to the reader, and should often be used in preference to “telling.”

Dean:  Does that relegate direct characterization to the prose trash heap?

Terry:  No. There are times when direct characterization is useful. Indirect characterization is more likely to engage a reader’s imagination and to paint more vivid and memorable images, but direct characterization excels in brevity, lower word count, and moving the story forward. It is up to the writer to decide when the use of each characterization method is appropriate.

Dean:  Can you offer some examples?

Terry:  Sure. Through the magic of internet interviews, I prepared two paragraphs below. Each conveys the same basic information, but one demonstrates direct characterization, while the other demonstrates indirect characterization.

Paragraph one:

Melvin King did not care for modern electronics and computers. He preferred the old days when a guy could work with tools in his hands and figure things out.

Paragraph two:

“That Melvin King,” said Sanderson, watching Melvin scratch his head in confusion at the engine diagnostic display. “He doesn’t have a clue when it comes to computers. Give him a manual, a set of wrenches, and an old engine that needs work, and he’d be happy as a hungry robin on a worm farm.”

Do you see the difference in quality of description versus efficiency in moving information? Both told the reader about Melvin, but one includes emotional impact while the other simply moves the plot forward as fast as possible.

Dean:  How do you decide which approach is best?

Terry:  The most appropriate method, and the amount of detail included, depends on the needs and concerns of the writer with respect to conveying necessary character information to the reader. I might answer this question with a reciprocal question. What does your story need? If the answer is to pick up the pace, then use direct characterization. If the author’s goal is to deepen the character/reader connection, then use indirect characterization.

Dean:  I think that makes it pretty clear.

Terry:  Indirect versus direct characterization is really just another writing tool that all authors should master and use with intent.

Dean:  Thank you for sharing your expertise, Terry.

Terry:  You’re welcome, Dean. Thank you for inviting me.
Dean . . . my closing thoughts:
Flank Hawk is a must read in the fantasy genre. To borrow Ronald Reagan's expression, it's a "darn good yarn," but it also serves as an excellent role model for aspiring writers on how to build compelling characters.
Blood Sword, the sequel to Flank Hawk released ten months ago, so you don't have to wait to find out what happens next in the series.


  1. Great advice on characterization! Thanks, Terry.

    1. Thanks, Angie and thank you, Dean, for inviting me to discuss Characterization.

    2. I agree Angie. Terry is one of the best I have ever read at building dynamic characters who contribute heavily to plot, pace and voice. Thank you for your thought...Dean

  2. Very useful information, thank you!

    1. I'm glad you found Terry's advice useful. You cannot go wrong with his knowledge, and thank you for commenting...Dean


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