I was thinking the other day about my post on the sycophant and that actually got me thinking about my most recent reading (I’m currently working my way back through Eddings, again, I know). What I started wondering was how many times should you remind your reader about the nature of a character (either through action or through other character descriptions). It seems that if you endless preface everything the character does by a reminder about why you like/don’t like them eventually your reader is going to get sick of being treated like a child with no attention span but if you don’t put enough cues and reminders in you risk your reader forgetting key points about that character.
In relation to my own writing I’ve noticed that I have a lot of reminders in first drafts. Most of my ‘abandoned’ projects are full of these prompts (some in bold for my reference so I remember what I was trying to convey about the character at the time). One in particular has something on nearly every single page to remind the reader that character S is meant to be unstable. Other characters hint at it, she does something that not clear minded person would do, an earlier incident is referenced, something is hidden from her because she may not be trustworthy. Every single page. Okay, I may have missed two pages because she wasn’t involved in either scene but you get the point.
Wouldn’t reading that just drive you up the wall? Wouldn’t you want to ask the author – how dumb do you think I am? You just told me she was unstable, you showed it clearly, move on with the story already.
At the same time, if she was called unstable, did one slightly zany thing and then consistently acted normally throughout the story, when her instability became essential to the plot, the reader may have forgotten it entirely and wonder what planet the author was on when they wrote that critical scene.
This brings me to Eddings (awesome epic fantasy writer that he is) and his use of provisional reminders. Mostly with the Ellenium trilogy I’ve noticed that as each character is introduced they are given, or demonstrate to have, a number of very specific character traits. These recur periodically but not to the point where the story is stagnating in flags and pointers. However, if a character is absent for multiple chapters, upon their return, one of the other characters will usually make mention of having missed something about them, or they will almost immediately do something that reminds you of their character traits. Also, at the beginning of the second and third books, the first time a character is reintroduced the protagonist makes a point of considering his companions but he does it in a way that isn’t too intrusive to the story and it is a pretty quick recap.
I think Eddings found that balance between reminding the reader of the critical points without getting endlessly repetitious, and he’s disguised his reminders for the most part or at least managed to weave it into part of the story.
So, writers and readers out there, what are your thoughts? Do you like to be reminded or do you like to move on with the plot? Is finding a balance the key?
Thanks everyone for your comments and warm welcome back. I’m still slightly jet-lagged, back at work full-time, have in-house guests and a number of other things going on at the moment so am having a wonderful time trying to settle back into a rhythm. No writing happening at the moment but I know now for sure that I’m going to be rewriting my WIP in first person. Ever since I made that decision I’ve had ideas and pieces of narration flowing through my head continuously so I know I’m on the right track.
This post I want to talk a bit about my trip but not about all the amazing things I saw. I want to talk about the characters I collected.
I am a people watcher. I can’t help it. And when I see a person my first thought is usually about what sort of character could they be. From there my head then adds details and backstories and extra physical features and the final character ends up nothing like the person that was the catalyst for their creation which is probably just as well as they are based on a five minute impression of someone I’ve probably never spoken to.
So which characters did I collect?
The Bore. This is the guy who sits behind you in the bus and tells the same boring story four times throughout the day. Everytime someone new comes along, out comes the story. And it was a boring story to begin with. This is the guy whose girlfriend starts talking over because he is that boring. Yet he insists on getting to the end of his story even if nobody is listening. Plus, he doesn’t vary the story or expand it with the retelling. It is told the same way every time with the same words and in the same monotone drone.
The Tourist. There are people who tour and then there are tourists. The tourist is the one who actually believes that speaking louder will help people understand the words they are saying. The tourist is the one who criticises the hotel staff for not speaking English (in a non-English speaking country). The one who pokes the breakfast rolls and grimaces at the idea of eating food that they are unfamiliar with. Instead of responding with wonder and the strange and unusual, the tourist either photographs it or turns their nose up at it.
The Impatient Man. This one is the guy who does everything short of running you over to get ahead of you in a cue. Then he proceeds to try to work his way around you, gently shoving you and your belongings to the side. When that doesn’t work he starts calling out to the person at the head of the cue trying to get himself a reason to walk around you. Then, if someone else dares to push in anywhere in the line, this is the man that goes off at them and berates them. Signature of the impatient man is the rumpled, grey suit. It is always grey for some reason.
The Dreamer. This one I saw several of, mostly in London. They wander around in the parks staring at the grass or the trees and they seem to tilt in the direction the wind is blowing. These people are in serious danger of getting run over by bike riders or even running squirrels because they are not at all focused on what is happening around them. They frequently have paper backs stuffed into their back pockets.
I collected many others but what is important is that being around new people in new situations got me looking closer at the people around me. I am always watching people but this trip really helped me to focus on some of the smaller details.
One thing that amazed me was when I was in line to go to the Eiffel Tower there were a group of soldiers, with very large guns, walking around underneath and generally keeping an eye on things. That kind of freaked me out because seeing a soldier in uniform is kind of something for ANZAC day only and seeing someone with a gun that big in public is fairly uncommon in Australia. It was interesting watching how some of the other visitors responded. Some tried to photograph them and were rebuked. Others utterly ignored them, treated them as if they were part of the scenery. Others snuck covert glances at them while others stared openly. It was just interesting seeing the array of reactions.
Well, I probably won’t get to post again until the weekend but I am wishing everyone a very good week. In the meantime, I would love to hear some of the characters you have collected over the years.
I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.
Keeping it simple today. This is quick checklist for creating genuine characters:
- Don’t shun stereotypes – While the overuse of stereotypes is definitely a no-no, but to utterly ignore every existing paradigm for character creation isn’t such a great idea either. Despite what people say, they actually do like the familiar and dragging them by the hair into totally new territory probably isn’t the best way to connect to your readers.
- Appearance matters – You have to give your reader some idea of what your character looks like. This doesn’t mean giving the reader an info dump two pages long that ends up describing every single mole. Give them enough to form an image and then move on (and if you revisit physical appearance again be sure you are consistent).
- Dialogue rocks – Dialogue is where the reader has the chance to hear the character speak in the words that they have chosen. Unless the book is narrated by the character the reader does not get the chance any other way. That means the dialogue should be authentic to the character and it has to be distinguished from other characters.
- Everybody has a past – unless you sprung from the ground about a sentence before the beginning of the plot. How much of the character’s past you choose to explain or explicitly detail is up to the individual writer and plot but every character has a past, has opinions and viewpoints and ways of doing things. Characters that seem to exist only for the sake of the current plot never really feel genuine.
- Relationships are necessary – You character is going to be interacting with others and it is important that you understand the relationship that they have with each of the other players. Is there a history? Is it a newly established connection? Are there other connections between the characters? If the relationships don’t work then the characters won’t feel right.
Did I forget any? Probably. Let me know what you think.
And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.
We all have those odd little ticks and quirks that make us who we are. Our characters should too.
I would make a terrible character. I’ll tap anything on any surface and I’ll do it continuously until someone makes me stop. When I have a pen in my hand I flick the lid off, just a little bit, and then click it back on. I do this over and over again. If I have a tic-tac packet I will rattle it and open it and close it until it drives everyone else in the room nuts. I would probably be the character in the horror story that gets shoved in the path of the monster while everyone else flees.
But those little ticks and traits are part of what make me who I am.
So you need to consider is your character:
- a hair flicker
- an eye-lash flutterer
- a nervous laugher
- a twitchy sitter
- a toe tapper
- a question tagger (You understand what I mean, right?)
- a jacket straightener
- a collar turner
- a ring fiddler
- a lip chewer
- an ear tucker
- a head turner
And I’m sure you can add many dozens of interesting traits to this list. Let’s see how many we can come up with.