I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of the concrete. I’ve heard some writers say “Tell, don’t show,” but I maintain that they are trying to be edgy, accrue some curiosity, and sell more books. It is still show, don’t tell, with the exception of the occasional puddle of exposition or backstory, which would probably be just as good if revealed in the concrete, but is acceptable in the abstract.
When we’re talking about a character in the concrete, it manifests most heavily in gesture and diction, and on a larger scale, in what they do throughout the course of the story. I don’t buy much into what the character is wearing or their overall appearance. But, as in real life, when you fall in love with someone, it is the result of certain charming attributes. The way they lounge on things that are not meant to be lounged on, like other people. Punctuating an otherwise awkward sentence with a wink. Empathy, wit, depth–the things we love in people–exist in the most minute of word and deed. Diction gives us a very fleshy sense of character, for something that is entirely fleshless. J.K. Rowling crafted about fifty fleshy characters in her Harry Potter universe, largely the result of a couple characteristics (such as Snape’s constant curtain of oily, dark hair) and individual diction. Hermione, Dobby, and Hagrid spring immediately to mind. Imagine how much would have been robbed from us if Dobby did not always address Harry as “Harry Potter,” or “the noble Harry Potter,” or if Hagrid had not been allowed to pronounce “to” as “ter”! It lends such flesh, such ring, to the sentence. Word choice and cadence give us a strong notion of what someone is like.
Then there’s what they say. What they say, how they say it, and why they say it. It’s hard to tell which one is most instrumental in romance, the topic of this evening’s post. In short, they are all important. If you described my face without noting the eyes, you’d be remiss, though they do not outweigh the lips. It’s all part of the same sum, and it’s all connected. If there is a discrepancy between what they say and what they think or the situation they’re in, this lends you some intrigue and unpredictability.
I had been writing a relationship into one novel, and was disappointed with how flat it felt. I realized that I had been summing up a lot of the feelings, as if I were informing the reader of the relationship, rather than allowing them to experience it. You never want to tell your reader (who is your vicarious main character) how they feel. You want to illustrate the story as clearly as possible, and allow them to feel what they will.
Love lies in character, and character lies in the little words and deeds of every single scene. These patches will eventually form the quilt of the larger story, and that’s when a reader really wishes the character was real, because they’ve fallen desperately in love with them.
Here are some other tricks for illustrating a certain character’s desirability without telling your audience that they are desirable:
- Other characters comment on their appeal.
- They are not constantly available, physically or emotionally, but cause the reader to yearn for them.
- Leave the audience wanting more. Almost-not-quite love is the staple of enduring drama. If they’re leaning in for a kiss, have someone open a door and walk in.
- Put obstacles between your romantic characters, preferably very solid ones. The Scarlet Letter was such a good book not because of its inspection of morality and individuality in society and religion, but because Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale were in love, but could never be together, for what was, back then, damn good reason.
I do mention sex in the header of this post, so let me brush on that for a moment. Sex–or physical intimacy, whether it reaches the point of sex or not–is difficult to digest as a casual reader, much like violence, gore, and gratuitous, out-of-character profanity. There is a certain audience given these topics, but like in real life, most people prefer it kept behind closed doors or “fade-to-black,” and have a tendency to shutter the windows themselves if it gets too vulgar for them. After all, your readers are your voyeurs, and they want to see a little, but they don’t want to get the whole show and feel uncomfortable. At the same time, many stories are about adults and adults have sex. This is how an entire sexual episode, or violent episode, can be covered in a story without making the audience uncomfortable reading. This is also something you can do when you want to give your reader the sense of time passing without actually writing the details of a month.
Plant a few concrete details which sum up the general feeling you’d like to impart, without being too graphic. Most readers don’t want to know the specifics of sex and violence, but rather, like a scene in a movie, to catch the glimpses that paraphrase it. It also helps to evoke lyricism, euphemism, and wit at such junctures. People like those things and will let more slide if it sounds pretty.
But remember to keep it concrete!