Monday, September 26, 2022

How to Use an Actor's Tool to Write More Compelling Characters

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

An actor gets into character by slipping inside skin—or head if you will of their role. It’s a mental exercise to shelve your own thoughts, feeling, reactions, etc. to become the character. 

It’s much the same in writing. We, the author, must climb inside our POV character’s head and write what she or he sees without telling the reader she saw it. 

For instance, let’s say your character is a detective entering a room looking for clues. Write that without telling. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

Have you got it? No? For a new writer, especially, it isn’t easy. After all, we’re telling a story, right? Well, not quite. Readers nowadays want to experience the story with your character. 

Let’s start with the sense of sight. 

I know, I talk a lot about the 5 senses, but they are so important to our fiction. Instead of telling us: “Clarice came into the room. To her right, she saw a messy desk” show it something like this:

Clarice stepped into the room, and with a soft click, closed the door behind her. Over by the window sat a desk that hadn’t been touched in a long time, gauging by the dust accumulated on the piles of books and papers. Wait—the phone. It was oddly clean. (I highlighted sensory words: sound, sight, and possible smell of the dust). 

It takes more words to show, but your reader will feel like they are in the story with your characters. Let’s try another one, using the sense of touch. Instead of: “She lid the nightgown over her head. The soft fabric felt silky against her skin” try this: 

Lily slipped the turquoise nightgown over her head. Its silk floated down, a cool whisper over her skin.

A little dramatic maybe, but you get the idea. Now, let’s try the sense of smell. Instead of: “Gabby loved to go in the bakery. It smelled like heaven” try something like this:

Gabby walked through the door of her favorite place on earth—the bakery. She inhaled the aroma of vanilla and yeast, and her mouth began to water.

In this last one, I used “inhaled the aroma...” instead of smelled. The action verb of inhale shows where smelled is more inactive and telling.

To sum up, you, the writer, become the character, recording all she hears, sees, feels. In showing, you avoid words like heard, saw, felt, thought, hoped, wondered, and wanted. That’s not an exhaustive list but some of the telling verbs. 

Like all “rules,” there are occasions when you can break them. But be sure it makes your prose better than if you’d shown. A novella is one place where you can show a bit more because the word count is shorter. That doesn’t mean you tell the entire story, though. 

The best books are the ones where the reader feels like they have been part of the story. That happens when you show instead of tell.


Ane Mulligan lives life from a director’s chair, both in theatre and at her desk, creating novels. Entranced with story by age three, at five she saw PETER PAN onstage and was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. One day, her passions collided, and an award-winning, bestselling novelist immerged. She believes chocolate and coffee are two of the four major food groups and lives in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, The Write Conversation, and Blue Ridge Conference Blog.


  1. We write from the theater in our mind, you remind us that the words we choose are the writer's craft.

  2. Thank you Ane for these clear and specific examples. Currently in an editing stage, I need these reminders! : )