My husband thought the roadrunner was offering him presents. My reaction was that it was making sure we knew that it eats the creatures we spend so much time and money feeding. Later, I searched Google for a less anthropomorphic interpretation of the roadrunner's behavior. I found this at a page at the National Zoo's site:
Food items often play an important part in roadrunner courtship. In early spring, roadrunner pairs reaffirm their bond through courting and mating rituals. A male dashes close behind a female, a tempting lizard or snake dangling from his bill. He wags his cocked tail from side to side and occasionally springs into the air and clumsily hovers to keep her attention.
Apparently, I have a rival for my husband's affections. Either that, or the roadrunner is two-timing his reflection in the door with his reflection in the window.
What does this anecdote have to do with writing? It demonstrates that a piece of common writing advice —Show emotions through actions and reactions, don't tell them—doesn't work well. An action, unadorned with any hint of explanation, can lead to different interpretations or just plain confusion.
We each have had a unique life; the older we get and the more we've experienced, the more different our reactions seem to become. In book discussion groups and critique groups, I've seen each member derive a different meaning from a character's action. I often am confused while reading about what emotion the author wants me to assume underlies a character's pout or hand gesture or head toss. Without any further clues, I can think of several emotions that could cause a person to act that way.
Even if the emotion seems clear, the reason for it may not be. Recently, I was baffled by instances in a friend's fantasy manuscript in which characters drew away in disgust or showed revulsion after close physical encounters with dead people. I wanted to know what cultural taboo or religious belief caused them to react so oddly. My friend was baffled by my bafflement. Such a reaction seemed so natural to her that it needed no explanation. As a result of our different backgrounds and different experiences with dead bodies, we had very different assumptions about what is a "normal" reaction to a corpse.
I now ignore the advice about only showing the results of emotions. There are too many ways a reader can interpret any particular behavior. I encourage you, too, to ignore this advice. Remember the roadrunner, and give your readers a break. Give them some other hints about what your character is thinking or feeling. Let your readers know about relevant cultural mores or incidents from the character's life. Otherwise, they may find your character's behavior as baffling as that of the roadrunner at our door.
Have you ever had a reader grossly misinterpret something you showed without any telling? Have you ever been confused by a character's actions? Or do you think I'm wrong and that a good author can get emotions across entirely through showing?
Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging again on June 21, the first day of summer.