Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Characterization and Backstory: Secret Sin #5

It’s vital that readers understand our characters. These are people to us, with faces we can see and voices we can hear. We know everything about them, down to the lint in Richard’s pockets and the cracks in Damian’s bathroom mirror. If we can see them, our reader should too, right? In truth, too much description can dumb our character’s down in the reader’s eyes.

This is a tricky sin. The issue too much/too little description is hard to define. There’s nothing wrong with fleshing out your protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with creating a clear image of how they look. And a bundle of quirks isn’t going to upset anybody. The sin is not how many traits Richard has, but how you reveal these traits to the reader.

There’s two ways of characterization. You can reveal things about your character, or you can introduce them. An introduction is just how it sounds: “Look, this is Richard. He wears leather jackets and likes flexing his biceps in not-so-subtle ways.” Revealing someone is subtler, more gradual. “Damian tugged the edge of her skirt farther down her calf, wishing her legs weren’t so long, and that this skirt wasn’t quite so short.”

It feels natrual to introduce – a new character walks on the scene, and we want to know what they look like. What kind of accent do they have? What clothes are they wearing? How about their hair, skin color, eyes?…

If you tell us everything you know right away, you’ve simplified the character. There’s nothing to discover. The character become a grocery-list of quirks, looks, and metaphors. Try too hard to one them round, and it actually becomes flat. (This isn’t a bad thing – as long as that’s all the character was meant to be.)

A similar dumbing down happens with backstory as well. I have noticed a lot of novels that dump the backstory on you like so many rocks. It’s a very blatant, “I’m screwed up, and here’s why” type of thing. Either that, or the writer throws you a rubber ducky. This is when a character’s actions are explained by one simple event from their past. People are shaped by series of events and reactions; a rubber-ducky backstory make us loose respect for the character.

Backstory is a powerful tool. If you dumb it down or simplify it, we loose respect for the character. It’s a subtle thing that needs to be revealed piece by piece.

I remember one of Robert Crais’ characters, Joe Pike. Pike has a less-than-astounding backstory: he had an abusive father, spent a few years in the Marines, became an LA cop, and then a private detective. Now he’s a sort of Zen, enclosed, quietly dangerous guy that wears sunglasses and never smiles. In every book Crais peels back another layer of Pike’s psyche. The revelations are simple, non-dramatized, and very honest. Flashbacks relate to previous scenes. When the epiphany comes, it’s an understanding of how Pike has been shaped by his collective past.  The backstory is effective because you learn about it in digestible increments, the same way you get to know Pike.


Effective characterization.

I know I’ve presented a problem here: you can’t go about avoiding all character descriptions, or put off developing the backstory. So how do you introduce a character? What if they need describing? What if the backstory is essential to know about right away, up front? How do you avoid these sins and still work in the important stuff?

First: avoid dumping. Yup – “dumping” as in “info-dumping.” Spread things out so they feel natural, revealed. Avoid the systematic head-to-toe method of describing, and don’t insert descriptions just because you can.

Use flashbacks that add depth as well as explanation. A good flashback presents as many questions as it answers. Avoid epiphanies and rubber duckies that dumb down the real effect of your backstory.

Second: You’ve heard me say this before, and I’m saying it again – use only what is pertinent to a scene. Make sure the backstory you uncover relates to your previous scenes, and upcoming ones, in surprising ways (if possible.)

Try to write how your character would actually think. For example, when you play with your hair, you don’t think how it’s blond and luxurious. But many characters do just that. It forces the description out into the open, making blatant and fake. Try rooting out as many of these as possible; re-write a scene in first person if you have to.


One final point about introducing vs. revealing: when you introduce something, that’s all it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing more to learn, nothing more to discover. But when you reveal something, the revelations keep coming. You continue to peel back layers and add dimensions. It’s like getting to know someone: at first, one or two things about them may strike you; a funny hat they wear, or the way they always shrug one shoulder. Then as you get to know them better, this first impression gives way to a deeper understanding of who they are. Effective characterization takes you on this same path of discovery.

Similar posts:

More on Duckies. (This isn’t from my blog, but it’s a great follow-up to the rubber ducky post I linked to before.)


- Creative A

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