As I read Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon I paid close attention to the ways that Lin describes character, and demonstrates character development as the story progresses. I noticed the way that she both “told” and “showed” aspects of character. I will start with an example from the very beginning of the book:
Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village. She had glossy black hair with pink cheeks, shining eyes always eager for adventure, and a fast smile that flashed from her face. When people saw her lively and impulsive spirit, they thought her name, which meant quick thinking, suited her well (p. 2).
Here, the author is telling us what she wants us to know about Minli. Janet Burroway, in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, describes a passage such as this as the indirect method of interpreting character. About this method Burroway says, "The advantages of the indirect method are enormous, for it leaves you free to move in time and space; to know anything you choose to know whether the character knows it or not; and godlike, to tell us what we are to feel" (p. 97).
But this indirect method is not without its disadvantages. Again, from Burroway, “The disadvantage of this indirect method is that it bars us readers from sharing the immediacy and vividness of detail and the pleasure of judging for ourselves" (p. 97).
The other side of the coin from the indirect method is the direct method—showing. This is achieved through use of dialogue, appearance, thought, and the one I will focus on here—action. Consider this passage from page 37:
Her words cut into Ba like slices from a knife but, even though his face was pained, he said nothing and continued to pack. His hands trembled as he tied the bag closed, but they were gentle when he put them on Ma’s shoulders. ‘Let us go,’ he said (p. 37).
Oh Ba! If I were not married, and if he were not a fictional character, I would marry him.
Here, Ma is her typical acerbic self, and Ba, stoic and gentle, does not let her get to him. There is a job to do, and he’s on it. As the reader, I appreciate that the author has not pointed to his actions and interpreted them for me. Instead, I have a direct connection with the character and because I am judging the meaning of his actions, I feel a closer connection with him.
‘So, I think Minli, like the secret word and the paper of happiness,’ Ba said, ‘is meant not to be found.’ He glanced at Ma and while she did not meet his gaze, she made no objection, either.
‘And, tomorrow,” Ba continued, gently, ‘we should return and wait for her to come home.
Again, Ma said nothing but barely, perhaps only because he was looking for it, she nodded. Ba nodded back at her and quietly took some rice and dropped it into the fishbowl (p. 87).
The actions are subtle, so subtle. The fact that Ma does not speak, speaks volumes. This and her slight nod show us, the reader, that her character is evolving. She is starting to understand the wisdom of her husband, and acknowledge that she is not always right. And Ba? He quietly feeds some of their precious grains of rice to the fish who had suggested that it was time to tell Ma a story. Ba’s action demonstrates again his unobtrusive nature. He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Ma is changing, because to do so would be out of character.
StorySleuths Tip #70: Use both a combination of direct and indirect character development, allowing subtle actions on the parts of your characters to speak directly to the reader.