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Last time I talked about giving us a reason to care, and doing it early. My next tip is both the best method, and the best reason for doing this: showing readers who your characters are. You have three ways of doing this:
- Just tell us. “He was messy.” Quick, dirty, and it can work, but rarely in my experience.
- Show us through things they do—a lot more effective.
- Show us through their interactions with other characters.
Choice #3 is my favorite by far, partly because it lets you give vital characterization (and reasons-to-care) for two characters at once—and there’s one super easy way to do this.
Turning stretches of explanation into dialogue. It’s one of my favorite writing tricks ever, and I love it so much it almost feels like cheating.
Demo time! You might remember my partner Jack’s story from tip #1. It’s awesome, and it also serves as a really good example for this too. Early on, we’re introduced to a guy named Colter, who’s kind of a charismatic but shadowy, ambiguous mover-and-shaker. Here’s the original section, where we learn some good stuff about Colter:
He’d gained a reputation of being soft on the Surelians, much to the distaste of many officials, and given the topic of that day’s meeting was expanding trade on the Islands made them wary of his presence.
The only reason he was tolerated at all as someone with more passive leanings toward the Surelian peoples was because of his rank as commander. He supposed Sasha’s intervention helped him as well, as she had taken a liking to him over the years despite their disagreements on the subject. Sasha’s uncle was the third general and he’d always had a soft spot for what she wanted. If she wanted Colter there, then he’d allow it.
It wasn’t as if everyone was against him, anyway. There were a few key officials who were at least somewhat sympathetic to the Surelians. All he needed was a bit more time to rub them down.
So, all this is important to his character. And it’s not that the writing is bad (it’s not!), but it could be a lot more exciting/dynamic/active/engaging. And, best of all, it involves another character (Sasha) for him to interact with.
Here’s the conversation I came up with, incorporating all of the above info:
“They’re not going to like what I have to say today,” he reflected as he and Sasha neared the auditorium entrance.
“And when has that stopped you before?” She gave him a smile, not seeming nervous in the slightest. Probably because she wasn’t the one with a target painted on her back.
“Not nearly as often as they’d like,” he said, allowing himself the pleasure of a return smirk. “But they still think I’m too soft on the Surelians.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” Sasha said, clearly picking her words carefully. He well knew her opinions on the subject didn’t always align, but she’d never go against him directly, for a variety of reasons. “But you also deserve a voice just as much as they do.”
“And no one dares talk back to a Commander.” His smirk grew into something more secure, more satisfied. “Although I do have you to thank for the dubious honor of walking onto this particular battlefield.”
“Thank my uncle,” she said. “He’s always had a soft spot for my wishes. And I wish for you to be right here. Even if no one else does.”
“Always nice to have a Third General in your pocket,” he acknowledged.
“And it’s not as if everyone in there is against you.”
“You’re right—there are a few key officials who are at least somewhat sympathetic to the Surelians.” He considered for a moment, weighing options, measuring tactics, and, as usual, coming out comfortably ahead of his opponents. At least in his mental simulations. The real test was yet to come. “All I need is a bit more time to wear them down. Speaking of,” he said, hand on the auditorium door. “I’d say we’ve kept them waiting long enough.”
See how that works? Turning a stretch of exposition/description into a conversation:
- Breaks up long periods with no dialogue (which tend to lower the tension and make readers comfortable/sleepy instead of alert and tuned in).
- Gives us a super easy opportunity to characterize not just one character, but two. This is one of the most important things I’ll keep yelling about: it shows us who they are.
Doing this immediately lets us play both Colter and Sasha off each other, show the contrasts between them, and their entire relationship dynamic. How characters relate to each other, with their similarities and contrasts, tell you so much about them. And by doing this, you get a better feel for your side characters as well as your main!
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So that's it for today! I’ll be back with another tip soon! (And speaking of tips, if I’ve made your writing life easier or day brighter, let me direct you to that friendly button right down there~)