Friday, May 03, 2013

The Soul of the Person

Basic Translation to the e card pictured above:

I listen,
Not to the words;
I listen,
To the glances, the gestures;
I listen,
To the soul of the person.

I ran across that picture on Facebook – sometimes curated content is fairly awesome.  The translation might not be exact (my Italian is very limited) but that’s the gist of it. 

As much as it is an amazing instruction for living your life – it also struck me as dead on when it comes to fiction writing.  I struggled for a long time with the “Show, don’t tell” thing.  When you take yourself out of the work enough, you can see it… you can certainly read it in other people’s work.  When you spoon feed too much information on what your reader is supposed to think/feel/understand, the characters ring empty.  You’re telling me who they are, but I don’t really believe you.

I’ve read a lot of writers (published and non) who use the dialog to “show” you who their characters are.  Technically, it’s not telling if you have one character explaining himself to another… except it is. 

I listen, not to the words…

Well, that sounds a little counterproductive to us writers, doesn't it?  They’re all words. 

Except what you really want is for the words to disappear.  You don’t want to be so overly enamored with the way you sling a phrase that your characters have no soul.  That’s what you need to capture – their soul.

How do you determine the soul of a person in your real life?  Is it what they say to you?  If you have a person who tells you how smart they are, do you believe them?  My general rule is that when a person has to tell me they are smart, they’re not.  Either they’re not confident in their mental prowess and are attempting to overcome that by becoming the persona they’re putting out there.  Or they’re just wrong.  And quite frankly, an idiot doesn’t tend to know they’re an idiot.  Often when someone hands you boastful characteristics that they’re attributing to themselves, they’re lying. 

While we can tell the reader certain things, the character can’t be real unless your reader can listen to their soul.  You have to show this.  In real life.  In fiction. 

A lover might say, “I love you” often.  But, if that same lover cheats, forgets your birthday, puts his own needs and wants above any thought of you, do you believe him? 

Love is an action.  The words don’t matter; it’s the act, the movement, what’s shown.  Character is not the words.  You can speak words of great character, but unless you’re walking the walk – just like life, they’re just words.

The tricky part is aspiring to make your writing more than just words.  So how do you listen to the soul of the person?


Joyce Lansky said...

Well said. Also, different people react differently to the same event. In showing your MC's reaction or inaction, we get to know the character.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Joyce,

Absolutely. That's a great point, and an essential way to show character in fiction is in how they react to things you throw at them.

Peter Dudley said...

Telling is so easy to fall into. I've been writing my novels in first person, and it really bugs me when I realize I'm writing something like, "I feel tired now," or, "I can see that he's nervous," which are both totally telling instead of showing. Plus, they are weak statements, missing the opportunity to share with the reader the feelings of the MC. There are so many great verbs, nouns, and adjectives at our disposal that in one deft sentence we can not only show the other character acting nervous but the MC's reaction to it... without telling at all. That's the trick. (And it all gets fixed in revision, remember!)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Pete,

I think that's one of the reasons that 1st person is so hard to master. It feels more active naturally, so it's easy to fall into telling where other tools at your disposal would improve the story/scene.

Of course, I really think there are some things that can be told. Just get it out of the way and move on to the next... but I tend to draw the line with telling how a person feels... with that, it needs to be shown or eradicated. Tell me to move the character from point A to B without too much purple prose... but show me their emotion.

And yes, thank God for revisions! (except when you're in the middle of them...)

kold_kadavr_ flatliner said...

Wise saying;
here's summore wisdom:

Ponder, humanity, o'yonder
the Elysian Fields
past this mortal lifetime:
see the Abyss o'Misery yields
the fruit o'filth to those
who refuse to kneel.

Cya soon Upstairs...
Love you.
God bless your indelible soul.