Character reactions can show their personality

How can you convey to the reader that a character is a kind and dedicated mother? One option would be to include scenes where she's actively caring for her children. Or, you could have a scene like this, from Carl Hiaasen's Newbery Honor book Hoot.

"His mom sent him off to military school," Roy explained, "and now she doesn't want him back. She said so herself..."
Roy's mother cocked her head, as if she wasn't sure that she'd heard him correctly. "His mom doesn't want him?"
Roy saw something flash in her eyes. He wasn't certain if it was sorrow or anger -- or both.
"She doesn't want him?" his mother repeated.
Roy nodded somberly.
"Oh, my," she said.
The words came out so softly that Roy was startled. He heard pain in his mother's voice.

I like how this passage gives us, in a few short lines of dialogue, a rich and poignant picture of Roy's mother. We know from this exchange that she's sensitive and feels strongly about maternal obligation. We also see that even though she's capable of strong feelings, she's more likely to keep the feelings under control than yell and scream. Somehow, I find this passage more compelling than a straightforward one where she's simply seen caring for her kids.

A good reminder that a character's reaction to news or events can tell the reader quite a bit about the character. What do you think?


  1. Hello Livia! I just discovered you from your comments on Jordan's blog.

    I love the subtlety of your example. It shows so much in a deliciously indirect way.

  2. Hi Livia, I've been enjoying this blog a lot. As you've known, English is not my native language, and I've never found any interests in reading any novels written in English. But after reading your articles and reading your analysis on some of the writings, I came to realize that writing a novel is really like composing a piece of music. I've never thought that a novel (or the style of writing) could be analyzed as how a piece of music is analyzed. So now when I put novels and music, with which I am a lot more familiar, I really can relate to what you are trying to do here in this blog. I even feel that reading your analysis is even more fun than reading a novel?!!? :@
    by the way, I am soooo looking forward to your "big day!"

  3. Chiao-Li -- That's a really interesting point. It makes me want to take a music analysis or appreciation class to better understand the parts of a composition and how they work. I'm looking forward to seeing you too!

  4. Hi Livia-
    Thanks for the follow on Twitter (@sbaffone). Loved this post. I am doing my best to study the craft of writing. This was a valuable post!
    Best of luck in all your work.

  5. So much of relating to each other is communicated with gesture, posture, and facial expressions. Not only does it convey more than words, it helps the reader visual.


  6. i really like the passage you chose as well. it speaks so quietly yet so much!

  7. I tire of lists of traits that feel plopped in the middle of a story. It's beautiful when you don't realize you're getting to know a character, as your example illustrates. A character's reaction to others / others' reactions to them are both important.