3 Ways to Reveal Character Without Sacrificing Conflict

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

Often revealing character can feel like you’re showing your poker hand prematurely and it’s especially difficult to balance when the plot is character driven (meaning the primary conflict comes from within the protagonist).

Some hazards we run into:

  • Telling readers too much goes against the protagonist’s nature or self-awareness
  • Characters learn each others problems and secrets too soon

So how do we help readers understand our characters if our characters are unwilling to share or if sharing runs the risk of weakening conflict? We find ways to nudge and wiggle out bits of information indirectly.

A secondary character meddles

This means a character in the protagonist’s life thinks they know better and interferes or urges the protagonist to do something. Typically, this method leads to greater conflict or disturbances in the protagonist’s life.

You may have seen this, for example, in romance. The protagonist’s BFF is all, “Girl, you’ve spent every Saturday night in your PJs eating ice cream and watching Lord of the Rings for the past three months. It’s time to get over your ex and go on some dates.”

BFF has just given readers some direct information about our protagonist that the protagonist may not have so easily offered. Additionally, we also get an outside perspective. Maybe our dear protagonist wasn’t even aware of avoiding an issue or that she appeared so pathetic.

If you don’t want to insert information in dialogue, you can show it differently. If the protagonist comes home after a long day at work, she could find emails from random interested men and realize her BFF signed her up for ItsJustLuncha dating service for busy business people who only want to meet for...lunch. You guessed it!

From the second example we can infer that our protagonist doesn’t make room in her life for a relationship. Even though she’s career driven, her BFF thinks she deserves one.

An opposing force threatens

This means the antagonist or anybody who gets in the way uses details about the protagonist against her. This method can create a lot of tension.

You may have seen examples of this in crime or action genres. Suppose the protagonist is wrongly suspected of murdering a man, and a detective grills her. Our protagonist remains silent as the detective opens a file and reads every alleged wrong doing from the protagonist’s sordid past.

Yikes, readers kind of knew the protagonist came from a hard life, but we didn’t know all that! We’re given a deeper context in which to frame our protagonist’s mindset thus far.

Another example is if the protagonist hides information from her love interest and someone outs her. Sometimes this can take a malicious turn if that someone has a vendetta. Suppose our protagonist accepted a bet to date a school geek and she ended up falling in love with him. Enter the evildoer toward the end of the story who blows the whole charade!

In this example readers knew the secret, but another character didn’t until the interference.

The main character reacts

This method isn’t the easiest, but it’s one of my favorites. There’s an outside force, whether it’s a character or element, that makes our protagonist react. A deep reader will collect every reaction, action, and decision to paint an image of the protagonist.

You may have seen this, for example, when a protagonist faints at the sight of blood. The protagonist won't always have a reason to confess her fear of blood to readers, but we see it play out when the protagonist is caught in an uncomfortable circumstance--and her fear could become important later on in the story.

In this last example, we see the action, then our dear protagonist (or a secondary character) explains afterward.

What all three of these methods share is: the protagonist is put into an uncomfortable situation. Under those conditions, protagonists tend to reveal traits, backstory, and secrets to readers and other characters.