Far and away, the most common piece of writing advice given to budding authors is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t just tell the reader about the setting, the characters, or the story, show it to them.
It’s solid advice. Seeing something is more fun than just being told them about it, but it fails to answer the next logical question: what does showing even mean?
This is the roadblock that most beginning writers get stuck on, especially amongst the younger crowd, and they find themselves puzzling over it. “Does it mean more description?” they ask. “Should I literally show the reader more of the character and what they look like?”
While this is partly right, there’s more to it than just physical description. It’s all about giving the reader enough information about who a character is without stating it outright, allowing them to develop their own interpretations. By doing this, you create a more enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader.
Telling the reader about a character is detrimental to this. By telling the reader that a character is generous or intelligent, it forces them to expect the character to act that way. It becomes a problem when a character goes against this. Sometimes this is acceptable; not everyone acts the same all the time. But when it occurs repeatedly without explanation, it creates a disconnect between who the character is supposed to be and who they actually are. Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes, and it can be enough to jar the reader right out of the story.
A certain infamous YA novel about vampires is an excellent example of this. The main female character claimed to be fairly stoic, intelligent, and mature, but none of her actions backed this up. Characters would often praise the main male love interest for being so devoted to and protective of the main female character, when in reality his actions were closer to that of an abusive lover.
For the most part, showing a character means to show who they are and what they’re like without stating anything concrete. This allows the reader to develop their own opinions and interpretations of the character, and if they act in a way that goes against what was previously established, it is less jarring. The best way to do this is through the actions the character takes. As said previously, actions speak louder than words.
A good example of how action can show a character can be found in Harry Potter. We quickly learn that the titular wizard has little respect for authority, but Rowling/the narrator never says, “Harry had no respect for authority.” We, the readers, are allowed to come to that conclusion based on his actions when dealing with authority figures. Take this exchange between Harry and Snape in The Half-Blood Prince, for example:
“Do you remember me telling you we are practicing non-verbal spells, Potter?”
“Yes,” said Harry stiffly.
“There’s no need to call me ‘sir,’ Professor.” The words had escaped him before he knew what he was saying.
By making a snippy comeback to a person in a position of power over him and immediately regretting it, it is shown that while Harry has no respect for Snape’s authority, he is (usually) shrewd enough to have a filter between his mouth and brain. And it also serves the purpose of showing that he’s a smartass, which is also a significant part of his character.
As with every rule, though, there are exceptions. Sometimes telling can be just as effective as showing due to implications and subtext. Take these verses from Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” for example:
Well the South side of Chicago
Is the baddest part of town
And if you go down there
You better just beware of a man named Leroy Brown
Now Leroy, more than trouble
You see he stand ‘bout six foot four
All the downtown ladies call him “Treetop Lover”
All the men just call him “Sir”
Rather than show Leroy’s actions directly, the verse tells us several bits of information about him. On their own, the tidbits wouldn’t make sense. But given the context of the song, we’re able to put together that Leroy is a very intimidating man who commands respect from those around him, and through that respect he has attracted enough women that he has gained a reputation as a serial lover and a nickname to match.
…Or he’s actually an orangutan. I’ve never been totally sure about that line.
In any case, when trying to figure out how to show something, remember that actions speak louder than words, and that seeing is believing. If you want your character to be smart, show them reading books and studying. If you want them to be badass, have them take out a bar full of bad guys with only a pool cue and a paper clip. If you want yourself to be a writer, get out there and write.