Monday, May 20, 2013

Tool # 27: Reveal traits of character.

Show character-istics through scenes, details, and dialogue.

After over a month's hiatus, I am featuring another chapter from Roy Peter Clark's book,"Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.

A story in USA Today described a teenage surfer in Hawaii who lost her arm in a shark attack. It began like this:

Bethany Hamilton has always been a compassionate child. But since the 14-year-old Hawaiian surfing sensation lost her left arm in a shark attack on Halloween, her compassion has deepened.

This opening fell flat, I think, because of the adjective "compassionate". Too often, writers turn abstractions into adjectives to define character.

A little later, Roy goes on to say:

The reader who encounters character adjectives screams silently for examples, for evidence: "Don't just tell me, Ms. Writer, that Super Surfer Girl is compassionate. Show me." And, to her credit, she does.

Jill Lieberman describes how Bethany Hamilton, from her hospital bed, "tearfully insisted" that the fifteen-hundred-pound tiger shark that attacked her "not be harmed.". . .

And in December, Hamilton touched more hearts when, on a media tour of New York City, she suddenly removed her ski jacket and gave it to a homeless girl sitting on a subway grate in Times Square. Wearing only a tank top, Hamilton then cancelled a shopping spree, saying she already has too many things.

Now I see. That girl really is compassionate.

Put your new tool to work in Roy's WORKSHOP:

Sit with a notebook ready in a public place: a mall, a cafeteria, a sports stadium. Watch people's behavior, appearance, and speech. Write down the character adjectives that come to mind: obnoxious, affectionate, caring, confused. Now write down the specific details that led you to those conclusions.

Do you enjoy people watching?  Where is your favorite spot?


  1. Interesting when a character is described as X, and subsequent prose shows that he or she is anything BUT X. I like to watch people at malls or in airports. It is enjoyable to piece their stories together from their actions.

    1. Yes, I agree, Diana, those are two of my favorite places to people-watch. I need to do more of it! Thanks for stopping by. . .

  2. People watching is such a great way to improve writing skills - and get ideas and even snippets of dialogue. Sometimes when I'm struggling to show emotion without telling it, I close my eyes and picture the scene in my head. It really helps.


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