Written a Great Character? Prove It By Properly Using Show and Tell

Bring Your Character to Life by Correctly Using Show and Tell

Written a Great Character Prove It by Properly Using Show and TellAs an author, you must walk a narrow line between presenting skillful, competent, admirable characters—and realistically fallible human beings. It’s easy to unintentionally overemphasize one aspect or the other through a poor use of “show and tell.” The result? Readers sometimes end up getting completely the wrong idea about your character.

Allow me to demonstrate.

How Poor Show and Tell Gives Readers the Wrong Idea About Your Character

The easiest way to “sabotage” your character is by accidentally unbalancing him. You might be doing this without even realizing it.


By showing readers one part of your character’s personality, while only telling them about the other side.

Naturally, the personality traits that are shown are going to feel much more alive to readers than the traits about which they’re only told. Unless you balance your description by showing both sides of the characters, readers aren’t likely to take your word for it that this character really possesses traits they haven’t seen.

A Surefire Way to Make Your Character Look Like an Idiot

For example, consider a ghastly historical mystery (which I shall refrain from naming) that featured a character who worked for an intelligence agency. While on his very first job as a secret agent, he bungles the job by allowing his emotions to get in the way. He gains almost no information and he endangers the secrecy of his mission.

This is what readers are shown about this character.

And yet the author insists on telling readers the character “had more skill than that”!

Which fact are you more likely to believe?

How to Present a Balanced Character Through Skilled Show and Tell

Now, of course, the above author’s intent was to portray a skillful character who just happened to get carried away in a moment of fallibility. She was trying to show a strong character who was realistically flawed. This is admirable.

But because she failed to start by showing readers the character’s skill, we’re left with only her word telling us he was skillful.

Here’s the big problem: an author’s assurance, by itself, is rarely enough to convince readers.

Portraying your character’s flaws is an excellent way to make a reader connect and sympathize with him. But unless your goal is to portray him as bumbling idiot (!), be sure to balance his flaws by also showing some of his successes. If he’s noted for his skill, show readers that skill before you let the character mess up. A character’s flaws will carry much more weight if readers have first seen what the character is capable of. 

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you balanced show and tell by demonstrating both your protagonist’s weaknesses and his strengths? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Loved this week’s video! And ouch, I think I might be sabotaging my current main character. Usually my characters lean towards being too skillful and leading perfect lives… but with the book I’m working on now, I’ve had to remind myself to give her some skills and successes.

    Not that she’s an unlikeable character (um, hope not anyway), but she leads a hard life, and I think she may come off as wimpy at times. Thanks for the reminder to SHOW why she’s skillful, instead of just telling 😉

  2. Wonderful, another tip on keeping the main character balanced! I think I’m as guilty as that mystery author you mentioned when it comes to telling the other side rather than showing. It’s like my characters barely get a hold on themselves before I start throwing trouble their way. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Great tips! I definitely will think of how I’m presenting my MC and minor characters through their actions. Lately I’d been thinking that I’ve made my MC more cold and incompetent than I intended. I will take a fresh look at what I’ve written, with the idea of balancing who she is through her actions.

  4. Thanks, Katie…a great specific application of show-don’t-tell principles.

  5. @Mia: It’s *so* easy to err on one side or the other of the likable/realistic line. Been there, done that myself!

    @Jenn: Since the whole point of fiction is conflict, and since the heart of conflict is putting characters in uncomfortable situations, it *is* easy to emphasize their discomfort to the exclusion of everything else.

    @KC: One of the tests I use for main characters is to take a step back and ask myself, “Would I like this person as I’ve written him?” If the answer’s not an unequivocal “yes,” I know I need to do some work.

    @C.L.: Show and tell is so often misunderstood. It’s something we’re all refining our understanding of.

  6. Great suggestion on asking yourself if you would like the character. I’ll try to keep that in mind. More wonderful tips all around.

  7. I will have to grant you that taking an objective look at your character is often easier said than done!

  8. Fabulous Vlog post!

    This is so true, and I’ve noticed this in books I’ve read as well. I’m sure I’ve done this to every one of my characters, which is why I’m working on character development as we speak.

    Thanks for the advice and tips ;o)

  9. Ah, yes, the trauma we put our characters through – intentionally and unintentionally. Happily, though, this is a pretty easy item to recognize and fix, once you start looking for it.

  10. Excellent as always…
    now I have to go re-read through and make sure I am not doing that,Thanks 🙂

  11. Oh my I think I might have actually done something right for a change! I showed the skill of my little Miss Kitty, and then her weak side that taints her character a wee bit.

    Thank you for this boost, I needed it today.

  12. @Eternity: One more edit… they never seem to end, do they? 😉

    @Glynis: Awesome! Good for you.

  13. Great advice. What book were you referencing in this? I think I’d enjoy reading it!

    I think it can be tougher in a mystery setting to make sure you show the successes early on since you’ve got the bad guys/gals already trying to wreak havoc on your characters before they can sometimes even know what hit them. When this happens, you must get creative. I hope it’s one thing I’ve managed to do in my WIP (that hopefully I’m on the last or next to last edit of before snagging an agent!)

  14. The good news is that we the skills we show don’t have to negate the characters’ suffering at the hands of the bad guy. We can show them being skillful in small ways, while still allowing them to take a whupping.

  15. Just had to add another comment about this post. Since I am doing a re-write of my first novel and I am at the beginning…okay on chapter 2, close enough. I went back and re-read some of what I wrote. I am guilty of sabotaging my own characters. Thankfully I am able to straighten that out before I got too far along. That and it helps add a bit more depth to them. Now you have even more of my thanks, K.M. Weiland and gratitude.

  16. Ah, the beauty of rewrites! I’m glad you were close enough to the beginning that it was easy to fix. Have fun with the edit!

  17. Love this vid. Thank you, again, for emphasizing the less obvious fine points. I tend to what to latch onto the negatives of my characters first, and then find out what makes them likeable after. I like to ask myself, “what is it that makes this person durable?” And I also remind myself that villians (unless demons from hell) have good within and a mother who loved them just like the rest of us. Makes building complex characters more honest and more fun. You’ve reminded me that balance must be given sooner rather than later. Thank you!
    ~Sherry (poetphoenix)

  18. It’s the shades of gray in both the good and the bad characters that makes fiction interesting. The trick as writers is figuring out how to craft them to our stories’ advantage.

  19. Sharyn Kopf says

    I don’t know if it’s the same book, but I also read a historical mystery/romance where the main male character was a spy who not only bumbled his first mission … but was a frustrating failure throughout the story. In fact, the only thing he was good at was his cover job, which wasn’t that impressive.

    Near the end, when he just hides behind a tree watching events unfold, I almost threw the book across the room. I really didn’t care if he got the girl or not. He did, of course, which said more about her character than his. Though I did finish it, I haven’t read anything else by that author.

    What we “see” is always more interesting than what we’re told!

    Well, maybe not always. . . .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Doesn’t sound like the same book. Hopefully, we can both avoid the book the other is talking about. 😉

  20. Ruth Fanshaw says

    I found something like this in a novel by one of the ‘classic’ authors. There’s a character who is referred to through out as “the brutal jailor”, although all we actually *see* is “the slightly grumpy jailor”–until right at the end, when he suddenly, for no readily apparent reason, beats the crap out of the protagonist. Nothing he had actually *done* up to that point had set that up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, this is a great example. My bet is that the author knew upfront what the jailer was going to do at the end, so of course the author considered the jailer to be “brutal.” It’s so easy for us, as authors, to let our omniscient view of the entire story color the early portions, when readers are still (and should be) limited in their understanding of certain things.

  21. Thank you! As I’ve been editing my WIP, I’ve been having to add snippets here and there that better illustrate what I picture my MC to be like. I feel that in trying to be succinct, I’ve been too shy about putting in scenes that are truly needed.

    Thank you for always stating things in a way that makes everything clearer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So much (scratch that: everything) about writing comes down to balance. We can’t be too subtle, and we can’t be too blatant. It’s hard to strike just the right balance at first, so we all have to go back and tweak and tweak to perfect it in later drafts. Good for you!

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