Reading Reminder

August 20, 2010 at 5:32 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


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?

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12 Comments

  1. Cruella Collett said,

    It’s a difficult balance indeed. I bore easily with repetitions. But how it is done matters. If in the above scenario your reminders were of the “show”-fashion (showing me that the character is unstable through her actions and not comment on it) would be far better than if you kept writing “which she did, because she is unstable”.
    I just read a book where the MC was in love with his best friend. This was perfectly comprehensible because of the way he looked at her, the things he said to her, and the lenghts in which he was willing to go for her. However, since it was a first person pov, he also kept ‘thinking’ things like “I was hopelessly in love with her”. Yeah, Mister. We get that. Don’t TELL us what we already know!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Have to agree, have the same problem with Bella in Twilight. We get it, Edward’s good looking. You don’t have to remind us every single page.

  2. Alex Willging said,

    There’s a great page on TV Tropes that seems to link with what you’re talking about. The concept (as they call it) is “Informed Ability.” Here’s the link: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/InformedAbility

    Great post, by the way.

  3. Tooty Nolan said,

    It must be subtle, but it is sometimes necessary if your character is about to do something unexpected. I have a recurring character who very much lives his life on his own terms. So If he is about to do or say something outrageous I’ll write something like, ‘Well Horatio being Horatio he….’ It sort of sets up the reader to accept some action that perhaps they wouldn’t have otherwise. But what do I know? It’s how I work. But I’m a bit like Horatio – so it probably wouldn’t be acceptable for someone else. Are two writers alike? I hope not.

  4. Carol Ann Hoel said,

    I think if the character is prominent, I would demonstrate the instability through his/her behavior. If the character is minor, I would make that foreshadowing of this character’s unpredictable behavior stand out so that it would be remembered, a really harmful or malicious deed resulting from his troubled inner being, perhaps. Then when the character reappears, I would let some subtle but definite demonstration of his/her instability do the reminding. Comments by other characters would naturally come about after being the victim of the unstable character or a bystander watching it. Thank you for making me think.

  5. Jemi Fraser said,

    Good post – I think that balance is so important, but not always easy to do. I think I have to tone it down a bit in my current wip. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  6. AlexJ said,

    I’m still working on that balance.

  7. Lynn Rush said,

    Balance is key, but difficult to achieve. I like to be shown as a reminder versus told. The challenge is to get creative in the showing of the key points of the character. If I’m told over and over again, yeah, that gets really boring. 🙂

    And, like AlexJ said, “I’m still working on that balance.”

    Happy Friday.

  8. Hart said,

    Does indeed sound like Eddings found the balance well. I feel like MOST of it should be through character actions and very little description, but as you mention… OTHER characters noticing (being bothered or reassured by this or that) is a good reminder when it has been a while.

  9. Carol Kilgore said,

    Balance. I think if it begins to sound overdone to you, take that particular mention out. But the characters need to remain consistent throughout.

  10. Deb Salisbury said,

    It’s hard to find a balance. I try to remind readers only when a character has been off-stage for a while, or if that trait will be important to the climax and needs foreshadowing.

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