“Show, don’t tell” is one of the tried and true cliches of writing advice (along with “Write what you know”). Both of these tidbits have a basis in sound advice, and both of them can regularly be ignored for the good of the story. Telling is sometimes vitally necessary, for pacing or simplicity or style. And while showing can vastly improve descriptions and dialogue and plot, sometimes it drags things out with diminishing returns.
But there’s one specific aspect of showing vs. telling that I think is rarely talked about but vitally important—and that is the use of showing in character traits and accomplishments.
Certainly, it may be common knowledge that you shouldn’t just say a character is “happy”; you should show it, with a smile or a humming tune or something more original than that. And if you open the story with a bland description of your character’s entire personality—“he was kind and gentle”—it often isn’t as engaging as showing—“he caught butterflies between his palms and fed them with an eyedropper.”
But more than character traits, it’s important to show us the accomplishments and abilities that you claim they have. If the heroine is supposed to be intelligent, but we never see any evidence of this in her dialogue or her choices (or even see her studying or interested in knowledge), then at best it’s poor storytelling and at worst the reader won’t believe it… and may disengage from the story.
This is where I think a lot of “Mary Sue” accusations come from. The core of the “Mary Sue” is a character (mostly female… though there are many male examples which are ignored) whose traits and accomplishments do not feel earned—they feel like a glorified self-insert of the author living out her girlish fantasies of being loved and adored… without having “earned” that adoration. They are instantly liked by all (except the “mean girls”), they can go from simple nobody to strongest warrior in the world in a paragraph, and everything they attempt from musical instruments to complex equations is easily accomplished.
I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of “chosen one” idealization and fantasy, especially for young girls (and boys) who want to feel special. There’s something wonderful about wish fulfillment, and stories are a perfect vehicle for that, safe and comforting.
Yet “Mary Sue” stories get so much hate, and I think the reason (beyond sexism, obviously) is that these character accomplishments that make the main character so great are not just “unearned”—they aren’t shown. Want to write about the smartest girl in class? Show her studying, show her answering questions in class, show her discussing extra credit with the teacher—show her actually being smart when problems come up in the plot. Want to write about the strongest warrior? Show her training, show her getting hurt and learning how to block, show her learning different weapons in a more realistic time frame, show her bulking up and focusing, show her fighting and winning in difficult situations where others fail for realistic reasons (and she succeeds for realistic reasons). Want to write about the kind heroine winning over her former enemies with her friendly demeanor? Show her helping them even when they scowl, show her getting to know them through talking, show her impressing them (grudgingly at first) with her mercy and generosity, show them finding things in common, or seeing a bit of her dark side and finding it funny, and so on.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Devising scenarios which can actually show a character’s accomplishments requires a certain level of knowledge and experience in the author (or at least, research), as well as a flexibility in the plot. If your chosen one heroine gets plucked from the farm and has to be leading vast armies with an expert’s understanding of her legendary sword within a week, there’s simply no way to realistically show that… at best, you’d better bring out some magic that accomplished this and show us that (instead of just saying, “yeah, she was just that fast”). If your heroine is supposed to be smart but having her figure out that clue too quickly would wreck the plot, then you have to find a way to adjust—either make the clue harder, or let her figure it out and then find a different obstacle to put in her path.
The basic complaint of the “Mary Sue” is that everyone in the story finds her so impressive—but the reader doesn’t. When the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, but we’ve seen no evidence of that, we roll our eyes and assume the author is just living vicariously through this shallow character. But if the hero tells the heroine he fell in love with her intelligence, and we’ve seen her not just reading or studying but applying her knowledge to the plot, that moment will feel earned and mean so much more to us.
It’s not easy. It takes time, cleverness, research, and being willing to adjust the plot to fit—all of which may take a couple drafts to fully develop. And, unfortunately, it’s much harder with female characters, it just is… Male characters can show up in a cool costume and a smirk and we’ll believe that they’re awesome; female characters can do all sorts of clever and amazing things in the story and they’ll still get hate and be called weak. There’s only so much you can do about that.
But take the time to craft your character, and give her accomplishments real weight and realism and development in the story itself, and you’re that much closer to creating a character people will love and admire—and they’ll believe it when the other characters in the story love and admire her, too.