by Jodie Renner, editor & author
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Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?
Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!
In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and more likely, find something else to do instead.
Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.
Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!
Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.
If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip, and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.
Involve and engage the readers.
It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.
Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.
Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.
For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.
Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.
That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through, isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.
So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.
Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.
And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!
Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Excellent post, Jodie. It all comes back to making every word count. I recall when I worked with you to edit my debut novel, Terminal Rage, I learned to limit character descriptions to a minimum. Perhaps if you are writing a romance where the physical attributes of the leading characters would add value. But for thrillers and crime fiction, as you taught me, readers prefer to draw their own mental images. They should just be given the bare blue prints of a character’s physical appearance and they can run with it!
Thanks for dropping by and commenting, A.M. And so happy to see your gripping international thriller in print! It’s a bestseller-in-waiting!
Describing the appearance, clothes, and general physical attributes of characters is another topic for a blog post – hmmm, seems I’ve written one about that… I should look for it.
Great post, Jodie. I particularly liked the way you introduced it by likening meeting a character to meeting a person in real life. I think we’ve all know at least one person who has given us too much information in the beginning (or even later).
Also, thanks for organizing the posts by category. That makes this blog even more useful than it already is.
Thanks on both counts, Eric! And keep an eye out for more categories and links in the resource list in the sidebar. 🙂
Wonderful information, only wish I had this knowledge a year ago. I now understand why I selected Jodie to edit my current novel. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
Thanks, whoever you are! Come on, don’t be shy – reveal yourself! Aspiring authors and even published authors need to get their names out there… Just sayin’… 😉
The bore at the cocktail party is a great analogy, Jodie…I use it at workshops all the time. I have a person stand up, hand them a wine glass then introduce myself and start giving them my life story, complete with gall bladder operation details. The person always starts to actually inch away…it gets the point across. 🙂
You serve wine at your workshops??? Where do I sign up? BTW, happy birthday, Kris. Wishing you many more.
LOL! Love it, PJ! Gall bladder operation and all! 🙂
Happy B-day, Kris! Enjoy the day!
Happy Birthday, Kris! Thanks for stopping to comment on your special day! 🙂
Thanks for organizing our topics, Jodie! This will really help people find useful information.
You’re welcome, Kathryn. More categories to come! The process is a bit slow as I keep wanting to stop and read all the excellent posts on this blog, dating back to 2008!
Excellent post. It all ties in with Professor Bell’s mantra, “RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.”
As I am now deep in the quagmire of Act II, I am torn between wanting to capture the never-ending movie in my head and getting-on-with-it. After all, we’ve got cars to wreck and bad guys to shoot.
But it needs some set up, so we are in a brief quiet interlude where the MC locks and loads and makes sure her dog is taken care of (melancholy, she knows there is a chance she won’t be back.) The neighbor is (of course) curious about the mystery guy in the muscle car.
Instead, “In exchange for an uncomplicated afternoon and a bowl of homemade chicken soup, I’d make up a good story.”
*cut scene, new chapter*
“I got back later than I expected, but I was stuffed, mellow, and most importantly, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was no longer pounding a beat behind my temples.”
And, back to the action. We have to make a phone call and set up a meet with the bad guys. After sitting at the feet of TKZers, I know that what she told the neighbor is unimportant, just that what she told the neighbor was enough to satisfy her curiosity (for the moment.)
I loathe the detailed physical descriptions, especially the half-inch in height. “He was tall, at least six feet two and a half inches,” and OMG, the detailed description of clothes. As an object lesson, I use book by [ENORMOUSLY FAMOUS AUTHOR] who described the “sexy” outfit worn by the MC’s girlfriend: short black skirt, white blouse, fishnets, ballet slippers, etc. This happens to be the exact outfit I wore when I worked for a caterer. Yeah, sexy . . . *eyeroll*
Love the library, can’t wait to browse the old posts by category.
Thanks for your comments, Terri. I expect the male readers enjoy those kinds of visuals about sexy-looking characters. LOL
Glad to hear you like my “library resources” idea – the posts on this blog are so outstanding I wanted to make them more easily accessible for readers – and myself!
This is a great explanation of the need to give information in bits and pieces, Jodie! It reminded me of romance situations where too much information, even too much intimacy, is offered too quickly, killing the mystery and allure for the long run. Isn’t there an expression that more clothing can be far more mysterious than none? Like French lingerie compared to the easy breezy braless or topless look. While both might instill immediate attraction, which one is more apt to hold one’s interest longer? Maybe studying the habits and styles of famous seductresses is in order. BJGrandy
So true, BJGrandy! I’ve advised my thriller clients to think of offering information like a strip tease, one tantalizing bit at a time, to keep readers wondering and reading…
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
The mistake you’re describing is one I’ve heard called “the expositional lump.” It’s a good name, don’t you think? Instead of a free-flowing narrative, something like a basketball swallowed by a python suddenly stalls everything. I try to remind myself that characters reveal themselves through words and actions. Getting off to a fast start through dialogue and action initiates the process of exposing back story ASAP.
Barry, I like your alternate term, the “expositional lump” which can refer to info dumps of all kinds. And I love your imagery of a python swallowing a basketball! Great one! 🙂
Throwing in long paragraphs of backstory or flashbacks is a common beginner mistake, and one I see often when judging writing contests. There’s nothing that stops the pacing deader than lengthy exposition about the past. Who cares? Grip our interest, move the story forward, and then sprinkle in tidbits through conversation or snippets of thought about what happened before. And only include information that is relevant to the current story.
Absolutely, Nancy! Thanks for expressing it so clearly. 🙂
Whomever writes the Dresden Files needs your advice! I can’t read anymore adventures of Harry Dresden due to being interrupted with the author trying to teach me magic DURING a battle, or during a scene of conflict we digress into the past of “I remember when….”
Jodie, you put it excellently, in that nobody talks like that in real life…at least nobody that’s not drunk or on medication.
Best of luck to ya.
Thanks, Anon. Backstory lumps and info dumps are especially awful when tossed into the middle of an important, tense, fast-paced scene! So frustrating!
I have to care about a character to want any backstory. When I say care, I mean I want to know about them because they’ve done something that intrigued me, not necessarily that I like the character. I’ve read mean characters I wanted to know more about. It’s hard to describe when I want more. It’s kind of like on Mean Girls…I want to know where these girls came from, what made them so horribly awful to one another?
In that case, if backstory is left out, I might feel a little disappointed. You bring up so many valid points, because I really dislike reading a story and having to stop to get the low down on this new character.
If the character does something to trigger my curiosity, then it’s time to know a little more, but not their entire life’s story.
Good points, Diane. Incite our curiosity first, then follow it up with the best of the info, in small doses, naturally, in the course of the actual story going on, not as an author aside to the reader, or an unnaturally long reminiscing by the character. And as you say, we really don’t need to know their whole life’s story.
WOW!! What an outstanding post! Thanks, Jodie. Thanks y’all. Appreciate all your energy with TKZ. Happy B-Day! It’s my dentist’s office manager’s B-Day, too! Just dropped a grand there this AM. Crowned King for a Day! Cheers! to everybody!
Thanks for your kind words, Jim! It’s not my birthday, today, it’s Kris’s. 😉
Sorry you had to pay out all that money at your dentist’s! That’s painful in more than one way!
Good stuff as usual, Jodie!
I like the cocktail party analogy.
The aversive aspects of social cases of too much information are get-me-out-of-her clear (great teaching device, Kris!).
Conversely it is interesting to consider what details demand you attend to certain people in such settings (I mean besides the obvious “significant details” you randy TKZers :)).
Perhaps drops of a distillate of such intriguing info can be sparingly sprinkled on the page at character intro time and delivered in drips beyond. (I acknowledge embarrassment at such a vague metaphorical line – sheesh. The BS detector on my screen is flashing!)
After rereading your suggestion, I get it, Tom! And I completely agree! Great tactic. And I like your metaphor! Now all it needs, if I use this blog post in my next book, is a concrete example or two… Ideas welcome! 😉
Thanks for the great advice, Jodie. I needed it!
You’re welcome, Julie. Thanks for dropping by and commenting!
Wonderful post, Jodie! It was an absolute pleasure to read confirmation of processes my own characters use. They drive the story in all respects, on a ‘need to know’ basis…… I’m sure the muse will be delighted “:)
Thank you, Jordie, for sharing this! It was really helpful. Hopefully I can improve on my writing skills!
Thank you! 🙂