Monday, June 13, 2011

Revealing too much of your characters too fast

Last Friday we talked about making sure your characters are accurate, and some general things to look for with your characters.

The temptation is to take all your wonderful research, all the cool knowledge you have about your characters, and work it in as quickly as you can so that your reader will fully understand your characters. Because once they fully understand them, then they'll be able to fully sympathize with them. Right? Right?!


In her book Deep and Wide, Susan May Warren gives a great explanation for why this doesn't work:

Think back-if you knew everything about your spouse or significant other when you met them, would you still go forward? Perhaps it's best if we fall in love layer by layer.

...your reader wants to dive into the story, and too much too soon just bogs it down. If you dump your hero's entire bio onto the page, not only will it seem forced, but it will also lack impact. The fun of getting to know a character is discovering who they are and what makes them tic. The best part of a book is discovering the dark secret, or desperate motivation behind their actions. If you reveal it all at once it lacks punch, and you've stolen the emotional impact of the story from the reader.
That's such a clear explanation of why we need to reveal our characters bit by bit rather than all at once. Even if you're not married, I think we all get her point. If on the day my best friend and I met I dumped all my inner junk on her ("Hey, nice bag. I'm Stephanie. So, I tend to be pretty controlling in relationships, and sometimes I'll totally flake out on you....") she probably would not have emailed me after we got home from the conference.

So now that you've taken the time to develop your characters, look at your manuscript and make sure you're not guilty of dumping character bios into the first couple chapters. Mark places where you have, and be on the lookout for spots where you can do a better job of weaving in that information.


  1. Actually, your best friend would have said, "Hey, just the kind of person I tend to complement well. I'm mellow to the extreme, except for those times about four times a year when I lose it. So I'll listen to yours, if you listen to mine." ;-)

    Excellent points. I've always found this to be a delicate balance, as there are times when reading that I get very frustrated with the author withholding TOO MUCH information, only to eventually discover it and think, "THAT's what was so secretive? Oh come on!" LOL. So pepper it in, but if you're withholding a biggie, make sure it's actually BIG.

  2. YES. I think many of us have experienced that, where the author keeps hinting at a big reveal, and it turns out to be a big let-down. I think that takes some balancing. And some test readers to tell you how well you did. (or didn't do.)

  3. Is there a certain way to pace the information as you go along in your story, like, some super cool secret to it? Just randomly wondering. And is there a such thing as not giving out ENOUGH information about your character and keeping the reader in the dark to long? I've always been curious about that one.

  4. Hmm... yeah I actually was wondering the same thing Faye was wondering. =)

  5. I always tended to give too much information in the first chapter about my character. But on my newest work I didn't give enough explanation or showed the reader some important parts about the character and a lot of I still have to learn the point between the two :)

  6. Faye and Jazmine, oh I WISH there were a super cool secret. But it's a feel thing.

    There's a difference between some BIG secret you're revealing later as a plot twist and other things like intricacies of relationships. Unless the reader NEEDS to know, resist the urge to explain.

    Like Sananora pointed out, there's a happy medium to be found. I think most writers lean toward the side of too much explaining, especially when they're just starting out.

  7. Wow, this is great! I still have a couple of posts to read through [11 day trip around the outback with your classmates is quite a trip!] but I'm actually really looking forward to editing my draft -- I haven't even looked at it for two months, ever since I wrote it. So I'm pretty excited!

  8. Oh, Emii. I wish I was having to play catch up on life because I'd been on an 11 day trip in the outback!