The aim of this section is to show how you can use backstory to dictate the way your characters act in any given situation. The more complex your characters’ backstory, 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 is a deeper principle at work:

Understand that emotionally truthful characters are defined by a reader’s interpretation of the characters’ 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 who act and speak in a way that is true to real emotion (fear, happiness, etc.), it is the meaning the reader gives to these words and actions that matters, not what the narrator TELLS the reader to think and feel. Understand that any story is capable of stirring deep, universal emotions within the reader. In other words, it is the author’s job to SHOW the reader what the characters are doing via actions and dialogue.

The author 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.

We touched on this in the previous unit (Elements of Novel Writing), but the aim is to now put this into a wider and, more pragmatic, framework.

Internal dialogue is the soundtrack within a character’s mind. This is the character’s unique combination of beliefs, experience, and upbringing. This is the moral compass (or lack thereof) that will influence the way the character interacts within the physical world. External dialogue is simply the words that come out of a character’s mouth. Please note, that we have seen that the viewpoint (3.2) you are employing will have an impact. Most importantly, third person objective, will not have any inner thoughts in the narrative summary. In many ways, using third person objective is the purest form of the show, don’t tell methodology. 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 breathe life into your story.

In short, real people say one thing and do another.