to Reveal your Characters
by Jason Black
Abbot had Costello, Lucy
had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper.
Characters are never alone. It’s simple; we are social creatures.
We go better together. Some part of us needs others with whom to
share our thoughts and feelings.
Even characters who seem to be alone often aren’t, although their
companions may take unusual forms. In Cast Away, shipwrecked
Chuck Nolan had his volleyball. In 2001: A Space Odyssey,
astronaut Dave Bowman had HAL, the murderous computer nemesis who is
without doubt the most well-remembered character in the story.
As writers, we create friends, foes, and foils for the ordinary
human reasons. But we also do it because the relationships they
provide are marvelous tools for revealing our characters to our
readers. This subject probably deserves a book rather than a brief
article, but let me give three quick methods for using relationships
to show what kind of people your characters are.
Use shared or borrowed
When you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of
another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own
something that is a goal for the other character. A love-struck hero
might take up volunteering at an animal shelter when he learns that
the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He
might even adopt a sad, mangy dog despite his own allergies—they’ve
got pills for that, right?—just to impress her.
Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it
works for other situations too. I cannot help but be reminded of
Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo adopts as his goal the
decision of the council: the Ring of Power must be destroyed. He
doesn’t want to be the one to do it, but it’s clear that no one else
will be trusted with the task. And the stakes are so high, he
volunteers. Until that moment in the story Frodo has been driven by
events, but in that moment he starts driving. In that moment, we
learn everything we need to know about him.
Let relationships reveal
Relationships always have levels to them. Imagine a character who
is always creating little competitions between himself and his
friends, intending to provide opportunities for people to have fun.
He may be hoping this will make people like him. But how he reacts
reveals his deeper motivations: is he gracious in victory and
defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser? How his friends
react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or
are they annoyed? The interaction between the characters is your
vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak and
what it means. How the relationship plays out on the page says
Likewise, the love-struck mangy dog owner’s behavior may seem sweet
and fawning at first, but there’s a darker side lurking underneath.
It is ultimately selfish: his motivation has nothing to do with the
dog and everything to do with the girl. How little he must respect
her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way.
One wonders whether he even loves her
for herself; if he’s so willing to alter his outward image to
impress her—and mask his inward nature—perhaps he is more attracted
to her outward image than the person she is inside.
The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of
surprises. Competition can mask self-importance. Affection can mask
selfishness. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be
hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those
deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals.
Show multiple points of
No one sees themselves the same way as others see them. If your
story is told from characters’ points of view, you can readily
exploit this contrast. For example, the mangy dog owner may think
he’s fooling the girl. But from her point of view, we may
understand that she sees right through him. That, by the way,
creates foreshadowing: readers will expect this difference of
opinion to come to light in a dramatic clash.
There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs that goes deeper than
simply showing this type of contrast, and it’s one you shouldn’t
neglect. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery
rather than solves it. That is, can you show both sides while still
leaving readers wondering who is right? Can you show both sides
without telegraphing whether the competitive friend is egomaniacal
or simply fun-loving?
If so, that’s great. Simply solving the mystery later will be
satisfying. But you can go further. You also have the possibility
of a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later
by showing yet another layer to the relationship, revealing that
nobody is right! Perhaps the friend is not as fun-loving as he
thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think.
Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the
fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he may be creating
competitive situations in a struggle to reassure himself of his own
But don’t let it be a meaningless reversal, there only to keep the
reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a
character arc that is well supported by the rest of the story. It’s
the best way to surprise a reader, by showing them how to see your
character’s earlier behavior in a new and revealing light.
Relationships are a deeply fertile ground for revealing our
characters to readers. This is no surprise. We are social
creatures. In a sense, who we are is not only revealed by how we
interact with others, but is defined by it. These three short
strategies only scratch the surface, but I hope they give you gives
a taste of how characters—just like real people—go better together
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Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character
development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at
the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason
or read his blog, visit his website at