Deep Character Development: Show Don’t Tell
We’ve all heard that little pearl of wisdom, haven’t we? And in theory, we understand that it’s the author’s job to reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue and action as opposed to exposition…but rarely do I find a more practical explanation of how to do that. So in the interest of deep character development, I’m going to tell you about my experiences with one character in particular in the hopes that it will shed some light on the tired old “show don’t tell” conversation.
Nikita is a character from my Sons of Rome series, first introduced in White Wolf, and a character of whom I’m immensely proud. He’s the product of years of writing, and six years, specifically, of published writing.
He started, as all my characters do, with a baseline identity that I then added to and built into something three dimensional. To start, I knew that Nikita was three things: Russian, a member of the secret police, and also, secretly, a White (one of those Russians loyal to the deposed and then murdered tsar). These three main identifiers were the foundation of my research; I needed to understand what it meant to be Russian, what it meant to be a Chekist, and what it meant to be a White, and then fuse this information into a character profile. Because he was a White, I knew that he hated his Communist masters, and the government in general. And because it was 1942, and he was gainfully employed as a Chekist, he was going to have to play the long game, and do a lot of things that turned his stomach in order to get by. He was Russian, after all, and a survivor. An ace at playing the long game. When we first meet Nikita, he’s a man living a double life, and struggling beneath the weight of that mantle. He’s someone who feels deeply, and pretends not to, who burdens himself with guilt after guilt after guilt.
Once I know a character, then it’s time to decide how to reveal them piece by piece to the audience so that they can come to know them too. For me, the goal is to be explicit with details, but subtle with the meaning delivered by them. So with Nikita:
· His failure to eat isn’t forgetfulness. Between anxiety, low blood sugar, and the weight of a guilty conscience, he tends to skip meals intentionally. He beats himself up, figuratively, and one of the ways he does this is to deny himself the things he wants or even needs. (And oh boy is that going to be an ongoing conversation that comes to a head in book four, featuring a certain wolf)
· His coldness is a way to distance himself from others. He’s lost people, and he hates it, so he resolves not to get emotionally attached…an effort which always fails spectacularly.
· Being a White isn’t, for him at least, so much a political leaning as it is a way for him to justify the things he’s done. Does he truly support the Romanov family? Yes. But more than that, his secret identity provides an excuse for the terrible things he’s done in the name of the Kremlin. He can justify the evil if he thinks that he’s waiting to make his move and turn the tide. And he can tell himself that when he does make that move, it will be to topple a government that will be made better by a return of a tsar. This is part of the reason it hurts him so badly to meet Alexei and find out he’s kind of…a little shit.
All of these things are revealed through the course of the book, one event, and one revelation at a time. Showing the audience his heart and mind in this way creates a portrait of a man that is more human being than archetype, and that for me is always the ultimate goal.