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How can one establish the nature of a person/group to the reader without relying on actions to 'show' it? For example, if I have a group which is evil, how could I convey that to the reader without actions? Telling is of course an option, but I feel like I need to back it up with something, so the reader will know the group is evil beyond a doubt.

ADDITIONAL EXAMPLE: Some people were getting confused over what I was going for, so I've attempted to clarify it here: Most authors will show a person or group is evil by showing an evil action. Maybe a brutal murder. My difficulty is that if I want to remind the reader how evil this person is, I have to show that murder again, or create a new one. I call this relying on action: in order to show the nature of a person/group, you have to use repeating actions.

Alternatively, I'm going for a passive approach. I want a character or group to be inherently understood to be evil. Action is not off of the table, but it's not the reason why they are considered evil (you can reinforce the image with actions all you want). The reason they are considered evil is _____. That blank space is what I'm looking for.

A good example of this being done is Star Wars, specifically episode IV. Basically from the moment they are introduced, we understand the Empire and Sith are evil, and the Resistance and Jedi are good. I cannot tell how this is conveyed beyond all doubt.

In addition to simply conveying the nature of the person/group, I need to do so in a way that dispels all doubt. The reader needs to know that this person or group is good, evil, or whatever their nature is. And I need to do it without relying on actions. How can I do this?

Note: In the event that you use Star Wars as an example as I did, please be aware that I have not yet seen The Last Jedi. Please do not spoil it for me.

  • "I need to do it without relying on actions." Why? – Beanluc Dec 20 '17 at 20:17
  • @Beanluc Because I am trying to make it a passive part of the backdrop for the story. Similar to how a passive part of the backdrop for Star Wars is the Jedi and the Sith or the Resistance and the Empire - who are understood to be good/evil without actually having to show it all the time. That's what I'm aiming for. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 20 '17 at 20:25
  • Star Wars is also a film, which means it can use visuals to show the viewer these things. I wonder how the novelization does it? – Apologize and reinstate Monica Dec 20 '17 at 21:18
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    In the introductory "crawl" at the beginning of A New Hope, they are literally called THE EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE. So, names are important. :) – Dan J Dec 21 '17 at 5:39
  • Apart from the visuals and music, Darth Vader, from his first scene, also talks in an authoritarian and ominous way. That could be conveyed in text and make the protagonist (and reader) feel antagonism towards that character – xDaizu Dec 21 '17 at 9:01

10 Answers 10

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Referring to history, as noted in other answers, is a good way. You don't have to depict the action to have it come up -- in conversation, when a character reads about something online, when a detective turns up disturbing evidence, etc.

You can also convey a lot by other character's reactions to the character. If every woman in the room instinctively cringes and backs away when your harassing lech enters the room, that's a signal. If police, soldiers, or security guards reach for their weapons when your serial killer (who got off on a technicality) appears, that's signal. If your protagonists see someone being forcibly removed from a school with authorities shouting "we've told you over and over to stay away from our kids!", that's signal.

None of this is giant-neon-sign-pointing-to-the-bad-guy levels of signal, but it's still signal, and it shouldn't take too much to get your point across. How much depends on how closely you're sticking to the tropes of your genre.

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    I don't think reactions will work for me, because they are still actions I have to show and repeat. However, showing how the PoV character inherently views these people might be a good start. That isn't an action; it just requires a meaningful look, a tense attitude, or a whispered warning. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 21 '17 at 18:10
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Be aware that Star Wars, as most fantasy fiction, relies strongly on tropes and cliches. This means that 1) you expect a villain at some point 2) the villain's traits are obvious: dark, grim, hunchback, speaking softly, etc.

This is getting more and more difficult as we go afar from the usual cliches. For instance, if you want to subvert a cliche or create a surprise effect, this doesn't work.

First of all, you need to establish the rules of your world. If I have a nazi swastika tattooed on my neck, today, is quite likely that I'm not a good person. So visual symbols or identifiers can help.

Beyond that, I must confess that I don't know how to help. Every character is always described by their actions (words included) rather than the look. And this is for a good reason: how lame and boring would be a character described just by the look? And how more interesting and complex and tridimensional can be a character who speaks with his actions?

Don't rely too much on anything beyond actions - that is the advice I struggle to follow in my writing, and that I give to you as well.

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    "Every character is always described by their actions" I disagree with this statement in form, but not in intent. I would say that characters can be described by their appearance, but are defined by their actions. What is one of Vader's iconic scenes from A New Hope? "I find your lack of faith disturbing." – Nicol Bolas Dec 21 '17 at 5:09
  • Fair observation. I just add that the phrase by Vader, as every spoken line or dialogue, has to be considered "action" - at least this is how I see it. – FraEnrico Dec 21 '17 at 12:50
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I believe an earlier reply offered a way to define the group without having to re-tell some historic event. You can describe the motivations of the group. Along with their motivations you can use their emotional response to either events or even concepts. How you actually achieve this is dependent on how the group or group members are used in your writing. If a member of the group is a main character at some point in the story you can introduce them and portray their emotional/mental state by describing their thoughts and possibly plans (these could be an indication of where in your story this character will be active). The main example of this I can think of is "The Walking Dude" from The Stand (Stephen King). He was introduced as an ominous presence without a real description of his actions until later in the novel:

"There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think—and you would be right. It was the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth, a face to make water glasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees. It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody." King, Stephen (1990). The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday. pp. 214–215. ISBN 0-385-19957-0. Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Flagg

If the group is an anonymous force of unnamed individuals you could do the same by introducing the group and interactions between group members that establish the group's motivations; I do think it will be harder to integrate this into your story seamlessly though. The other alternative is given in another answer; use either the main characters or a third party character to establish the group's motivations/emotional/mental state. If you do this early and clearly enough within the story there should be no need to have to re-establish this later on outside of the group's interactions with your main characters.

The only other, practical, alternative I can think of is to compare and contrast the main character from the characteristics of the group where the focus is building out the main character. Again I feel this would be difficult to integrate into the story seamlessly.

Hope these thoughts help.

  • So to make sure I understand you're answer correctly... you're essentially saying that by showing how others view the person/group and establishing that well, the character is set? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 21 '17 at 18:15
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    Essentially yes, not so suitable for day to day living :) but the story needs to establish the positions of the characters before their critical involvement in the story. The clearest way is to get inside the character's mind but failing that you can allow other characters to provide that characterisation. As per the OP's original request you can do this without a specific retelling of history by describing their general outlook or some generic behaviours - as per that exert I included. – Alan Dec 22 '17 at 9:30
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You could use what I would call "hearsay". Basically secondary or tertiary characters of the story providing information without giving too much away through common small talk. Example:

  • Protagonist: I heard that the Fluffy Munchers were heading into town.
  • Random Person: Oh those nasty munchers always mess everything up around here. No good has ever come of them.

No mention of specific actions, but the sentiment is still expressed. Lace this into multiple "small talk" conversations and you will impart to the reader that this group is disliked by the general populace and are most likely up to nefarious things behind the scenes.

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What is throwing me off is your "Without action". Do you mean without having an action scene? Without the heroes fighting directly against the villains?

Here are some random ideas.

  • Tell of the group's past, including their history, and their beliefs. A character may watch tv/ read a pamphlet that describe that. Through the character's thoughts, we (readers) would be able to get the idea and know they are evil.
  • What about if your character comes across something that is already done. I keep thinking of those soldiers who "discovered" the concentration camps...
  • Perhaps someone tells the character of something. "You know, those Soviets really aren't bad because [pov]" and the character reacts to this.

Going to your Star Wars analogy within the first 10 minutes. Vader kills those he interrogates. The Princess tells us Vader is a baddie because he is not following the Senate.

Thus, without having a full understanding of the situation, we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

  • In answer to your question, I mean without having to rely on any form of action to convey the person/group's nature. Ideally, it would be an understood fact, a part of the setting in which the story takes place. There can be action, I just don't want to rely on it. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 20 '17 at 18:30
  • Hummm Without going "These guys are evil" and moving on... You should rely on Show-Don't-Tell... If you want it done. Say it and move on. If it is not important to the story, don't worry about it. – JP Chapleau Dec 20 '17 at 20:08
  • "Any form of action" - not even descriptions of their past actions? Either the narrator or other characters can make very clear what the bad-guys have done in the past. Is your question based on not even wanting to write that? – Beanluc Dec 20 '17 at 20:19
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    Seems do-able. And if not-stating past actions is really somehow critical to the story, maybe your one-two punch of "telling and backing it up with showing" can be: Having the narrator simply state the evilness, and backing it up by showing just how intense, visceral and deep the feelings, attitudes and reactions which sympathetic characters carry toward the bad-guys are. The reader will internalize what you give them if you give them reasons to. – Beanluc Dec 20 '17 at 20:24
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    "Vader kills those he interrogates." And force-chokes an underling, casually strolls into a ship whose occupants have been slaughtered, and blows up a planet. – Acccumulation Dec 24 '17 at 3:45
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In dialogue, either from the heroes perspective or from the villains perspective, discuss the resolution of a prior problem and dismiss it.

You can use that dialogue to prove callous psychopathic violence taken and accepted in stride by the villains, or "unnecessary" violence by the evil group causing empathic sorrow for the heroes. Children killed, a hospital bombed, a general lack of regard for civilian human life. e.g. causing an airliner to crash and kill 125 passengers in order to eliminate one witness. Or better yet, make three airliners crash, because the good guys disguised their route and the villains could not be certain which airliner the witness was on. Easy solution, kill everybody on all three.

Brutality, torture, and the killing of innocents is evil, the more innocents (or the more innocent) the greater the evil.

But you don't have to SHOW it, you can just refer to some past evil in a conversation of a few lines. Business as usual if discussed by the villains, and "remembered trauma" if discussed by heroes.

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If you are writing a screenplay, you'll have all the visual and auditory resources of film at your disposal: Ominous music, a dark palette, etcetera, which is what Star Wars uses. However, please be aware that many of the old tropes used for "evil" are ethnocentric at best, and racist or otherwise discriminatory at worst. They can also come across as horribly cliched.

If you are writing a book or a story (despite what you may have heard), it is perfectly fine to "tell" not show:

John James was a completely evil man.

Pretty unambiguous, right? As the author, your word is law (unless, of course, you're speaking through a first-person narrator).

  • While I can certainly tell, I feel like the reader will need something to back it up. I can say John is evil, but that by itself probably isn't going to convince the reader that John actually is evil. Or am I wrong in this, assuming any following actions agree with the 'evil' description? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 20 '17 at 18:46
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    @ThomasMyron Unless you're using a first person narrator, your statements unambiguously establish the reality of your story, by default. Of course, people could question whether your conception of "evil" makes sense, but (unless they are deconstructionists!) they are not going to argue with your right to delineate the parameters of the world you create. – Chris Sunami Dec 20 '17 at 18:59
  • @ThomasMyron The thing is... and evil person is evil because it does evil actions or have evil motivations for the things he does (which eventually leads to evil actions) [citation needed]. If the narrator saying "this character is evil" or the evil character talking in an ominous way is not enough for you, how do you want to "prove it" to the reader without evil actions? Furthermore, if a person never ever does an evil action or any protagonists thinks he is making evil actions.... is he actually evil? This is getting philosophical! – xDaizu Dec 21 '17 at 8:58
  • "[...] how do you want to "prove it" to the reader without evil actions?" Hence my original question. :) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 21 '17 at 18:16
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There's the old feels. I've read plenty of books where the main character gets bad vibes from the baddie when he first runs into the guy

Jimmy could feel the evil in this man as he stared into his dead-looking eyes. He could almost see a darkness gather around the men who were with him.

While that approach is a a little be 'tell' not 'show' it's relatable. We've all met people that have creeped us out, whether or not that vibe was justified.

  • What I mean by the 'can't use actions' restriction, is that I don't want to rely on actions to show that group A is evil. Take your first example. If I want to remind the reader that these guys are evil, they need to ransack another city, and Jimmy needs to walk through it again. That's relying on actions. Alternatively, I'm going for an inherent understanding that group A is bad. Generally, authors use evil actions to let the reader know that a person is bad. If those actions are off the table completely, what can I use? That's my question. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 20 '17 at 22:09
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The best way to show a character is to get in their head. If your writing style permits it you can let us know what they are thinking. What qualities do they consider virtues? what qualities are flaws?

Do they look at a poor person and feel pity or disgust? Do they see a battle on the news and think glory or needless slawter?

If you can't get into their head you can do the same with dialog. A character can tell another how they feel about world events, places, and people.

I always like this approach because it let's you combine character development with world building. It helps if specific readers may find one or the other boring.

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Star Wars differentiates good guys from bad guys in the opening sequence in two ways: Soundtrack, which you can't very well do, and by presenting them as a stark, inhuman force in the middle of raiding the rebel ship (an action that we're likely to see as evil).

You don't have to show your group killing anyone to emphasize that they're evil, they can perform a much smaller evil. Much as you can cause readers to sympathize with your hero by having him pat a dog or save the cat, you can have one of them just kick a dog, or chuckle while a bully gives someone a wedgie.

Of course, that's still an action. If you really must avoid actions, instead you can show them gathering at their Sanctum Malificus, decorated with goat-head banners and flickering red candles. You can describe their dress sense: skin-heads with racist or profane tattoos; dye jobs with anarchy symbols on their leather jackets. You can show one picking his teeth with a switch-blade, or just have them greeting each other with a whispered, "Hail Hydra."

Cliches abound in the above, but without knowing more about your evil group, there's little I can do to be more specific.

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