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4 The Principles of Characterization

The aim of this section is to show how you can use back-story to dictate the way your character’s act in any given situation. The more complex your back-story, the more realistic your characters and the more likely your readers are to fully engage with your novel.

The logical place to begin is with your novel’s characters. The fundamental principle behind the Show, Don’t Tell methodology is that a story is told via actions and dialogue. The role of the narrator is to provide description, not explanation. The ultimate aim is for the story to happen inside a reader’s mind, not on the page of the book. Only by lifting the story off the page and into the reader’s mind will the reader remain engaged and interested.

Yet, there a deeper principle is at work.

It is the understanding that emotionally truthful characters are defined by a reader’s interpretation of their words and actions, NOT by a narrator’s guidance. This is a wordy sentence, but we’ve already touched on this concept. Let me explain a little. When you write characters that act and speak is a way that is true to real emotion (fear, happiness etc.), it is the meaning the reader gives to these words and actions that matter, not what the narrator TELLS the reader to think and feel.

It is the understanding that any story is capable of stirring deep, universal emotions within the reader.

In other words, it is the writer’s job to SHOW the reader what the characters are doing via actions and dialogue. The writer must not TELL the reader the reasons behind the words and actions via narrative summary.

So how does this principle apply to characters?

Again, we are faced with a situation in which complex theory is actually applied via simple writing technique. To discover this technique we must first delve a little deeper into characters.

All major characters within a novel will consist of three essential components:

  1. Internal dialogue.
  2. External dialogue.
  3. Actions.

Internal dialogue is the ‘sound track’ within a character’s mind. This is their combination of beliefs, experience and up bringing. This is the moral compass (or lack of) that will influence the way they interact within the physical world.

External dialogue is simply the words that come out of a character’s mouth. Actions are just that, actions. This is the way in which a character will react to an event. The magic comes when we bring all three elements together.
It is the difference between a character’s internal dialogue, their external dialogue and their actions, which breathes life into your story. In short, real people say one thing and do another.


The Principles of Characterization Copyright © 2014 by BubbleCow. All Rights Reserved.


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