04 Apr

TADA Method of Studying Character

Posted in Character, Creativity, DIY MFA, Reading, Writing

You’ve all probably heard the saying “Show, Don’t Tell” a million times. The trick, of course, is figuring out how.  This is where the TADA method comes in.  I call it the TADA method because when you’re done *TADA!* there’s your character.

TADA deals with the four elements at play in character development that lie within the character herself.  Sure, you can also show us the character by having other characters react to her, or by showing us the contents of her refrigerator, but these do not come from the character herself.  These are all great ways to use the environment as a lens to show us the character, but with TADA we’ll focus on elements that come directly from the character.  These are:  Thought, Action, Dialogue, and Appearance.

To analyze how the author is using TADA with a character, use a Character Compass.  This is a technique where each axis in the compass represents one letter in TADA.  In two easy steps, you get your analysis.

Step 1: Choose a passage to read.  This can be a passage you’re struggling with in your own writing or someone else’s work.  The important thing is to focus on a short passage (short story, one chapter, one scene).  After all, the way the author shows a character can change from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.

Step 2: Note down how much of each TADA element appears in the passage.   The closer to the edge of the circle, the more of that element we see for that character.  The edge of the circle is the maximum and the center of the circle means that element was used not at all.

Example: The compass diagram shows a passage with a lot of dialogue and action but little emphasis on thought and appearance.

Note that you don’t need a perfectly balanced compass for the scene or story to work.  The purpose of this technique isn’t to force you to use all four elements of TADA, but to help you analyze how you’re using them.  You might do this exercise and realize that you’re much more dialogue-heavy than you thought.  Or maybe you’ll want to add a little more description of the character’s appearance.  Or maybe you’ll keep it just the way it is because the scene works.

The idea is to help you become more aware of how you’re using these four elements in your writing.  The more aware you become, the more you’ll be able to make certain choices on command, rather than by accident.

It’s also important to practice techniques like this when reading work by other writers.  As we’ve mentioned before, as writers we’re not just concerned with what an author is saying (or why for that matter).  What we really care about is how.  Using the Character Compass, we can become more attuned to how our favorite authors develop their characters.

Homework:  Pick a character in a passage you’re reading (focus on a short story or one chapter of a novel).  Read that passage and make a character compass for the character you picked.  Note: This character does not need to be the main character.

If you’d like a suggested passage to read check out Myla Goldberg’s “Going for the Orange Julius”

Did you learn anything about the passage you read that surprised you when you did the Character Compass?  What did you discover?


Comments on this post

  1. StaceyUK says:

    Here is my response to the exercise: here.

    1. Kiernan says:

      I've been spending the evening practicing with this — amazing! I'm hoping to post the fruits from this exercise and your first assignment (I'm behind!) tomorrow. 🙂

      1. Ghenet Myrthil says:

        I love this technique. I will definitely try it with my WIP one it's finished, so I can get a sense of how balanced my scenes are.

        1. J.C. Martin says:

          I've heard of the character compass before, and merging it with Stacey's colour-coding idea is brilliant!

          1. MJones says:

            I did this last night. Interesting excercise. I purposely chose a dialog heavy excerpt. I think I did much more telling than showing, but I did have some showing in there. I wish I would have used a bit more action and appearance– hints of discomfort and tension. Lessons learned!

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