In this section, you will learn how to use internal voice, external voice and actions to build full and believable characters.

We’ve looked at the role of internal voice, dialogue and actions in helping your reader to engage with your story. Now, let’s go back to our mate John and demonstrate how all three principles can be used in a short scene.

When self-editing, you can use this short section as a blueprint for the way in which you should be looking to influence the book you are editing. This section shows you have to use a set of writing tools to build scenes and characters that will live on in a reader’s mind.

The fundamental concept of the Show, Don’t Tell methodology is that an author must keep backstory and plot out of the narration. Including backstory in narration leaves the reader on the back foot and quickly results in them becoming bored. Show, Don’t Tell solves this problem by forcing the reader to lean into the book and work for the plot. This produces interest, keeps the reader active and sucks them into the story.

By not using narration to pass along backstory, the author is forced to look to other methods to tell the story. This is where characterization comes into play.

As discussed an author has three aspects to any character:

  1. Their internal voice.
  2. Their external voice.
  3. Their actions.
The internal voice is the author’s secret weapon and is the way the character thinks about the world. The external voice is the character’s conversation and can be used to pass along backstory and plot. Finally, the way a character reacts to any given situation provides a subtle, though powerful, method to provide readers with clues about the character’s backstory.

The use of internal voice, external voice and actions are called characterization.

There is one final aspect of characterization we have yet to address. You will often hear readers talking about three-dimensional characters.

This is one of those terms that has no real, definable meaning. Readers (and reviewers) who talk about three-dimensional characters will often mean characters who are realistic or true to life. The problem you face is that you are telling a story, not writing a documentary. By their very nature, characters in a novel are not real people. The goal of a novel is to stimulate emotion in readers and to tap into some deeper truth. This is done with characters, who mimic the real world in a way that tricks the reader’s brain into believing these characters are real.

You can use the characterization methodology set out in this course to create realistic characters.

  • How often have you heard a person say one thing, but then act in a completely different way?
  • Or how often have you heard a person say something, believe it fully, then act in a contradictory way?
  • Or how often have you said one thing, believed it to be true, then found yourself acting in a way that contradicts your earlier statement?

The simple answer is that people often say and act in different ways. That’s what makes people, people.

This is also what makes your character three-dimensional. It means that, if you are going to create realistic characters, they need to think, speak and act in ways that are, at times, contradictory.

The good news (actually it is brilliant news) is that you already have the tools in place to do this with little additional effort. You are going to use your character’s backstory to create situations in which your character reacts in an unexpected, though logical (if only to you) manner (the writer/editor).

Let’s go back to John for an example:

John walked into the cramped three-bedroom house, carrying a large cardboard box with a massive pink ribbon tied into a bow on top. He found his sister leaning on the door frame of the open back door, the final drags of a cigarette in her hand. When she saw John, she flicked the cigarette butt in the garden and then turned to him, her face beaming with a smile.

“John, is that for me?” she said, nodding at the box.

John smiled back, pushing the box on the kitchen table, its awkward weight evident.

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked around in an exaggerated motion, before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.

“You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

She danced from foot to foot, as she tugged at the pink ribbon. As soon as the ribbon fell away, the box lid forced its own way open with an explosion of black fur, ears, eyes and nose. John’s sister scooped up the dog.

“A puppy. I love him.”

So John’s bought his sister a dog. Really? What’s going on? We know John hates dogs, so this makes no sense. John’s acting irrationally. Or is he?

Well, … it is all a matter of understanding John’s thought process.

Remember, this is an example of characterization. The point here is that people do strange things. They often think/say one thing and do another. People do things that make no sense. It is what will make your characters interesting and three-dimensional.

It is OK, in fact, desirable, that your characters do things that make no sense to the reader. That’s the point. Though characters do things that make no sense to the reader, they should make perfect sense to the author.

A character should surprise a reader, but they must never surprise the author.

So here’s a little secret about John and his sister, which you, the reader, don’t know yet, because I, the author, haven’t told you.

When they were younger, John’s sister had always wanted a dog, but, because of John’s fear, it was never an option for the family. Fast forward to the present. John’s sister has just bought her first house and is setting up a new home. John had always felt guilty about the whole dog thing and now seemed the perfect time to make amends. John hates dogs, but he loves his sister more.

This is actually backstory, though it remains on John’s character sheet and is never shared with the reader. It was part of the character profile created for John. It, therefore, influences John’s internal voice. John has two elements to his backstory that are relevant to this scene:

  1. John hates dogs.
  2. John loves his sister.
So … while John may talk and act in a way that is influenced by his hatred of dogs, he ALSO talks and acts in a way that is influenced by his love for his sister. In this case, John’s love trumps his hate.

The result is that John’s actions do make sense—to the author. They, however, remain a mystery to the reader. The reader is forced to engage with John and build a rationale for his actions.

The result?

John is three-dimensional.