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?