or, “Thoughts on informed attributes and the closely related assumed attributes.”
“Informed attributes” is an example of telling instead of showing. Basically, a character/narrator in a story informs the audience about the attributes of another character. Sometimes this is a necessary evil to avoid paragraphs worth of exposition/description. Sometimes an informed attribute can even be useful. But when a writer does nothing but tell the audience about their characters instead of showing who those characters are through actions, that’s lazy.
So here’s an example of when an informed attribute can serve the story. Somegirl says to her friends, “Oh, Someguy, he’s so funny!” The writer must either back up that statement with some kind of other actions or reactions from other characters, or disprove that statement again with some kind of other actions or reactions from other characters. Maybe Someguy isn’t funny but Somegirl just thinks so, or maybe she’s the only one that finds him funny. Such an informative statement can be useful for story purposes, but if there is never any follow-up on Someguy’s sense of humor, then that’s just a lazy use of an informed attribute. Someguy stating that Somegirl is beautiful is also an informed attribute, but as above can give the audience insight into Someguy, and also avoids a whole bunch of physical description of Somegirl which still wouldn’t provide any insight on how Someguy views her.
The close cousin of informed attributes is “assumed attributes.” I’ve touched on this a bit in some of my latest ramblings on the MCU. In this case, the writer allows the audience to assume a character has certain attributes based on the relationship that character has with others. Again, sometimes this is a necessary evil and sometimes it can be useful. But again, if the writer just lets the audience assume certain traits about a character instead of showing the audience, that’s lazy.
So here’s an example where assumed attributes can be useful to the story. Hero is a good guy, and is best buddies with Sidekick. Because Hero is a good guy, the audience will tend to assume Sidekick is a good guy too because why would Hero be best buddies with a jerk? The audience is already pre-disposed to think kindly of Sidekick, which means if it turns out Sidekick is absolutely not a good guy, then audience feels betrayed like the Hero. However, this only works if some set-up to lead into Sidekick not being a good guy. The Hero doesn’t know until the reveal, but the audience gradually gets to see the eventual conflict unfold, which in theory should result in a greater emotional impact when the showdown between Hero and Sidekick finally arrives. Or if the Sidekick doesn’t play a big role in the overall story, it can be forgiven to use the shortcut of assumed attributes to devote more story time to more important characters. But if all we ever see or know of the Sidekick is that he’s best buddies with the Hero and he’s a fairly important character, that’s just lazy.
Too often in media, informed attributes and assumed attributes are used in place of actual character development. I am more forgiving of the use of informed and assumed attributes when the particular medium has limits. For example, as I’ve discussed before, a short story generally has only about ten pages and that severely limits the amount of space that can be dedicated to exposition or anything else, really. Or a movie, for example, generally has only 90 to 120 minutes to show a complete story. Sometimes shortcuts are necessary evils. However, in serial media especially, I am much less forgiving of this laziness. For example, I am a stated fan of the MCU, but even I have to admit that as much as I liked “Captain America 3,” there wasn’t much character development happening. In fact, the key character of the whole debacle, Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, never even got to speak for himself. The goodwill from Captain America was just expected to carry over into “Captain America 2” and then “CA3.” As the MCU gets more stuffed, I’m afraid this will be more common.
In short, I dislike lazy writing. Informed attributes and assumed attributes are two closely related examples of lazy writing. In most stories character matters more than plot (at least to me), and the characters’ actions and reactions direct the plot if not outright drive the plot. So if a writer can’t be bothered to show the characters’ attributes, we the audience have no emotional stake in the characters. No stake in the characters means no stake in the story. That’s what happens when a writer is too lazy to show actual character development – the story ends up boring, and to me, as a writer, that’s one of the worst criticisms I could ever receive.