Keeping your reader on a need-to-know basis

By Joe Moore

Along with plot, setting, dialog, theme, and premise, your story is made up of characters. Hopefully, they’re interesting and believable. If they’re not, here are a few tips on making them so.

It’s important to think of your characters as having a life prior to the story starting, and unless you kill them off, also having a life beyond the last page. You need to know your character’s history. This doesn’t mean you have to explain every detail to the reader, but as the author, you must know it. Humans are creatures molded by our past lives. There’s no difference with your fictional characters. The more you know about them, the more you’ll know how they will react under different circumstances and levels of pressure.

The reader doesn’t need to know everyone’s resume and pedigree, but those things that happened to a character prior to the start of the story will help justify their actions and reactions in the story. For instance, a child who fell down a mine shaft and remained in the darkness of that terrible place for days until rescued could, as an adult, harbor a deep fear of cramped dark places when it comes time to deal with a similar situation in your story. Why does Indiana Jones stare down into the ancient ruins and hesitate to proceed when he says, “I hate snakes.” We know because he had a frightening encounter with snakes as a youth. But the background info must be dished out to the reader in small doses in order to avoid the dreaded “info dump”. Keep the reader on a need-to-know basis.

Next, realize that your characters drive your plot. If a particular character was taken out of the story, how would the plot change? Does a character add conflict? Conflict is the fuel of the story. Without it, the fire goes out.

Also remember to allow the reader to do a lot of the heavy lifting by building the characters in their mind. Give just enough information to let them form a picture that’s consistent with your intentions. The character they build in their imagination will be much stronger that the one you tried to over-explain. Telling the reader how to think dilutes your story and its strength. Don’t explain a character’s motives or feelings. Let the reader come to their own conclusion based upon the character’s actions and reactions.

Avoid characters of convenience or “messengers”. By that I mean, don’t bring a character on stage purely to give out information. Make your characters earn their keep by taking part in the story, not just telling the story.

Challenge your characters. Push them just beyond their preset boundaries. Make them question their beliefs and judgment. There’s no place for warm and cozy in a compelling story. Never let them get in a comfort zone. Always keep it just out of their reach.

And finally, make your characters interesting. Place contradictions in their lives that show two sides to their personality such as a philosophy professor that loves soap operas or a minister with a secret gambling addiction. Turn them into multi-faceted human beings in whom the reader can relate. Without strong characters, a great plots fall flat.

Keep your reader on a need-to-know basis and your characters on their toes to maintain suspense and a compelling read.

15 thoughts on “Keeping your reader on a need-to-know basis

  1. I enjoyed your post, Joe. I usually make up elaborate backgrounds for my characters before beginning a novel and keep them in a file with pictures of people from magazines. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t care for the online programs. The info is for my eyes only. Just a few of the characters’ details find their way into the novel, but I think it’s important that the author know their characters inside-out. Thanks for the reminder. Each scene or chapter should reveal something new about the characters and keep the reader interested.

    • You’re so right, Cynthia. The more YOU know about your characters, the more you’ll be able justify their actions and reactions.

  2. Great tips, Joe. I’ve recently read a couple of thrillers from well-known authors who resorted to last minute “messengers.” I HATE that. Oy!

  3. Indeed, “last minute messengers” don’t cut it UNLESS they are planted and justified earlier. In those instances minor characters can work, but only if given their due.

  4. Am I over-analyzing or doing too much when I have a timeline in a file of the character’s history? From their background growing up to story timeline? These files range from main characters to minor characters.

    • Emissary, I don’t think you can build too much background on your characters, but make sure most of it is for you, not the reader. It’s like a blueprint of a house, the visitor doesn’t need to see all the studs and wiring and plumbing, just the final product.

  5. I forgot which author said this (maybe it was Stephen King in “On Writing”?) but he said he created elaborate dossiers for his characters. He said he did it not for the READER to know the character but because HE had to. Almost nothing from the dossiers appeared in books. But he just had to know things going in.

  6. Love this post, Joe. It took me a long time to get this line through my head and make it work. “The character they build in their imagination will be much stronger that the one you tried to over-explain.” Thanks for the reminder as I work on my next novel. Very helpful.

  7. Yes on the imagination! I do not like the driver’s license style physical description and save us from the catalog description of clothing. One super-stud thriller writer described his MC’s girlfriend’s “sexy” outfit. To me it sounded like a waitress from a banquet hall. I never did warm up to her and heartily hoped she’d be killed off.

    Whenever I beta or proof something I always ask the writer if it is critical that they state the character is 5 feet, 10 and one-half inches tall and weighed 180 pounds or would “medium-tall and buff” suffice.


    • Agreed, Terri. I give my main characters little physical description beyond hair and eye color. I want the reader to form their own image. And I hate the dreaded “mirror” trick when a characters looks in the mirror and describes herself in detail.

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