Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Character Backgrounds: The Dilemma of Sharing Too Little, or Too Much

When writing a story, there exists a natural disconnect between how the author interprets the plot, and how the audience reads it.  The obvious reason for this being that the author has the (mis)fortune of knowing the intended background details of the events and characters before they ever makes their way onto the page, in ways that are not readily available to the reader.  The task for any decent writer is to convey these details in a way that makes for a compelling narrative that will be neither overbearing for the reader, nor leave them stranded in the dark regarding important plot/character developments.

Spotting moments when an author is being too reserved with details is fairly easy.  Anytime you’ve come across a part of a story or book that left you wondering, “Wait, who is this, and why are they suddenly in the middle of everything?  Where they hell did they come from?” you were essentially exposed to underdeveloped writing.  Be sure not to misunderstand what I’m saying, though.  Introducing new characters, and strategically withholding information about them, can be an effective writing technique to invigorate interest back into the plot, as a little mystery can go a long way in building much needed suspense in an otherwise stale plot.

As an example, imagine a love story between two characters named Tom and Jill.  For over a hundred pages, you followed along as Tom sees Jill, falls in love with her, and tries desperately to impress her.  Jill was originally aloof regarding Tom’s advances, but slowly she starts to feel flattered by his affection for her, and agrees to give him a chance.  Things are going great for the two love birds for several more pages, then—just as the plot can’t bear the weight of anymore Hallmark moment clichés—a sudden wrench is thrown into the mix:

Nothing could tear Tom’s gaze away from Jill’s eyes.  The shape of them, their softness as she smiled, even the wrinkles that formed at the corners of her eyelids as she laughed, all worked to keep him in a hypnotic trance from which he could not—would not—escape.  Or so he thought.  Because the moment Susan Gallaghan walked by them, he felt his eyes wander from his beloved Jill’s enchanting eyes, to the rhythmic steps that paced along in front of him.

Let’s assume this is the first time this Susan character is ever mentioned in the plot.  The first thoughts any reader is going to have will be along the lines of:  “Who the hell is this Susan person?”, “Is she someone new to Tom?”, “Is she an old flame?”, “Is she a girl from his youth that he secretly pined after?”, “Is Tom actually a serial killer, and Susan his next victim?”  At this point, we, the audience, have no clue.  The fact that we have no clue is what makes it a brilliant writer’s trick, because now you are invested in the dilemma and subsequent resolution that is sure to follow.

But what if the drama never really follows the way you expect it to?  While the sudden introduction of this new character works to spark the reader’s interest in the development of the story, it can only carry the audience’s engagement so far.  If Susan keeps popping up in the same way, with the same vague acknowledgment from the established characters, the reader’s interest will quickly turn to frustration, and ultimately to disinterest.  You have to give the audience a reason as to why the things that are happening on the page are worth being mentioned to begin with, and in the case of character development, this means divulging at the very least some connection between secondary plot-devise characters (like Susan above) and the main protagonists.

Divulging a character’s background effectively in a narrative is not as easy as it may sound.  A lot of times it can come across bloated, and a poor attempt to force feed too much information into the plot, just for the sake of having the reader know why this person exists in the story.

Imagine if the mysterious introduction of Susan above followed up with:

Tom immediately recognized Susan as his high school sweetheart, to whom he had lost his virginity to on prom night.  The two of them went their separate ways soon after graduation, but Tom never quite got over his love for Susan.  Susan, for her part, had little trouble moving on from Tom.  So much so, that she moved away to study and travel abroad.  As she traveled the world, she gained an appreciation for herself, and how she didn’t need to define her identity by any one person that happened to be in her life.  Unlike Tom, Susan wasn’t validated by whether someone loved her; she felt complete knowing that she loved herself.  Even now as she walked past him with all the confidence of a young woman who intended to live  her life to the fullest, Tom’s heart throbbed once again for the one that got away.  Though Susan didn’t recognize Tom, the two of them would be seeing a lot more of each other from her on out, since she was set to begin a new position in the very firm Tom worked at.

The problem here isn’t that this information is being revealed within the plot; it’s that there is no reason to have it laid out all at once, let alone right after the mysteriousness regarding Susan’s presence was so brilliantly executed.  All of this can be revealed through the course of several pages, if not several chapters.  Again, by all means give the necessary background to establish a character, but there is no need to lump it all together in one spot, because then your narrative will inevitably end up repeating itself again and again, every single time the information needs to be revisited.  Eventually, Tom and Susan will have a confrontation, where hints can be dropped regarding their past intimacy.  Rather than state that Susan is a confident and independent person, why not show it by the way she behaves and interacts with her surroundings and the other characters?  Pretty much everything stated in that one paragraph can be dispersed throughout the story by piecemeal, without having to kill the suspense of revealing it all in one big swoop (especially right after the mystery character is introduced).

For a real literary example of where an author does a superb job of balancing the enigma of his characters with their subtle background revelations throughout the plot, I would point to the characters of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  Even before the book’s otherworldly narrative is revealed, these two characters’ peculiar manner of dress and manner of speaking foreshadows a fantastical nature to their persons (and, by extension, the plot itself).  All of which is subtly explored in what essentially amounts to breadcrumbs worth of information through the course of a 300+ page story.  And in the end of it all, the mystery behind who/what Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar really are is never fully revealed, precisely because there is no reason for the story to do so.

Ultimately, it’s up to every writer to decide how much is too much background exhibition for her/his characters, and how much is just enough to not stifle character and plot development.  That happy balance will largely depend on the sort of story you are trying to tell, and it may take several revisions to get it within the range you are aiming for.  But, while it’s not always straightforward in either case, being able to spot the problem in other written works means you are more than capable of applying that critical eye to your own.  Like a lot of writing advice, it simply starts with reading your writings not as an author, but as a reader, first and foremost.


Understanding Perspective in Writing

Writers easily get bogged down in what one could call the nuts and bolts of narrating a story–plot, setting, character development, etc.–that it often gets easy to overlook that narrating itself is the very underpinning that defines the perspective by which a story is revealed to the reader.

Generally, most narratives are written as either from a first-person or third-person perspective.  Second-person exists, too, but is not often used as an exclusive character perspective on account that it makes it hard to construct a long-form narrative with it (not impossible, but definitely hard).  As an example, on many blog posts [including this one] I’ll often utilize the rhetorical second-person “you” in reference to the hypothetical reader scrolling through the text, but when doing so will usually not take long to resort to the first-person “I” in order to make the prose coherent.  By and large, if you are writing some kind of narrative, especially in the realm of fiction, you’ll probably be doing it in first-person, or third-person.

Regular readers of KR know that I hate all forms of jargon.  Philosophical, political, literary–all of them; if you’re someone who always feels the need to express yourself using pretentious ten dollar words and terms in lieu of more straightforward ones available, I will always assume that you are probably someone who doesn’t know what s/he is talking about.  With that in mind, if you are not 100% sure about all these terms, let’s simplify it by saying that if your story’s narrator speaks using “I,” “me,” and “we,” your story is written in first-person.  The strength  of writing in first-person comes from the ease by which the reader gets to empathize with the narrator, and in turn, the narrative of the story being told.

Tom went to the store, bought gum, and then shot himself with his revolver,” can be emotionally gripping, but not as emotionally gripping as, “I went to the store, bought gum, and then shot myself with my revolver,” because now you are not just being asked to read as a casual observer, but as the main character him/herself.  This is why first-person narratives are easier to immerse oneself into, as the prose has less of a descriptive barrier between narrator and reader, making it easier to become invested in the plot’s dilemmas and character arcs.

However, writing in first-person also has its drawbacks.  The perspective is by definition restricted to only one point-of-view.  Unless your character is some sort of clairvoyant deity, the narrative will be limited to whatever s/he sees and describes (even if your character is an all-knowing god, written in first-person the story is still only told through the perspective of one viewpoint, hence it’s still restricted).  Most stories have more than one character present; hence it’s not hard to realize the issues that arise when you can only ever truly understand how one character is feeling, and have to rely on this one perspective to give a complete deduction on the thoughts and intentions of all the other characters.

As an example, let’s say that the narrator character is in a conflict with side characters A and B.  What are character A and B’s thoughts on this conflict?  You don’t know.  You know what the narrator character thinks their thoughts might be, and that’s all.  This isn’t a problem, in and of itself.  It can be used to create a wonderful sense of tension and suspense.  But it also means that a writer has to keep in mind perspective consistency within the plot, so that it doesn’t violate the logic of the first-person perspective that’s been setup so far.  This means that if side characters A and B had a conversation somewhere far away from the narrator character, the narrative has to be worked around in which the narrator character somehow gets wind of it if it’s going to be mentioned in the plot.  The narrator character can’t just mention it in mid-conversation, because we–as the readers who have had direct purview to the narrator’s perspective–know that that’s not knowledge that could have been available to her/him.  It breaks internal logic, and it’s rhetorically lazy.

Another glaring handicap with first-person narratives is that everything in the setting is dependent on the description given by the narrator character.  Which means that if this narrator is presented as someone not keen on being too observant and articulate, it will seem weird to have her/him suddenly break into elaborately detailed descriptions of everything happening around her/him just so the reader can see what’s being looked at.  It can also be distracting, and work to undercut the immersion benefits mentioned earlier regarding the first-person narrative to begin with.

The ready alternative is to write in the third-person, and many writer’s workshops will tell you to do just that.  Third-person allows you to separate the narrator’s voice from the characters in your story.  This means that things like character actions and appearance, and setting descriptions, are not dependent on any one character’s observations.  They are instead voiced by an impartial, non-participatory “third-person” giving all the details of the narrative’s happenings.  The obvious benefit of writing in the third-person is that it allows the writer to craft a multi-perspective plot that includes the inner thoughts of any character in the story, not just one narrator character.  Although a third-person narrative can have the affect of creating a buffer between the reader and a story’s protagonist in contrast to how a first-person perspective can work to merge reader and character into one unified voice, it also gives the writer a greater sense of control of setting the details of the narrative, as well as a greater sense of freedom when it comes to how these details are to be dispensed to the reader.

The major setbacks to writing in a third-person perspective is the misstep of not understanding that the narrative comes in two very distinct forms, which for the sake of consistency should not be confused throughout the plot.

The first form is what is called third-person-limited. The non-participatory narrator uses pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they” (as opposed to the first-person, “I,” “me,” and “we”), and will give descriptions from the aforementioned impartial point-of-view.  But, as the name implies, a third-person-limited perspective has its literary  constraints.  Limited implies that while the narrative will give descriptive details to the reader independent of any one character’s subject thoughts, it’s narrative scope is limited to the details of usually one main character, and the details shared will not step outside the purview of the details available to this main character.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a first-person perspective just with different pronoun usage, you are both right and wrong.  Similarities between the two are clearly present, but unlike a first-person perspective , third-person-limited does allow for the narrative to explore the inner thoughts and motivations of the secondary characters because they are not being described through the main character’s subjective perspective.  The limitation is that the secondary characters have to be in some sort of interaction or connection with the main character.  Of course, it is also possible to avoid being tied down to one and only one character, by re-centering to a different main character throughout the different scenes that make up the plot.  One just has to be careful not to get confused about what character is currently occupying this role (i.e. if character A is the main character in Scene 1, and Scene 2 switches to character B as the focal point, the third-person-limited narrative in Scene 2 can’t suddenly start reference details revealed in Scene 1 because its point of focus, character B, will as of this point be ignorant of said details–even simply stating in the narrative, “Character B is ignorant of this fact revealed to Character A” is a violation of the internal logic of a third-person-limited perspective).

On the opposite side of all of this, stands the third-person-omniscient perspective.  For a writer, this perspective allows for the greatest amount of narrative freedom, in that you are not chained to the thoughts or whereabouts of any one character.  Think of the third-person-omniscient perspective as the god’s eye view to the third-person-limited bird’s eye view of storytelling.   Want to explore multiple character thoughts and feelings, without needing to relate it back to any given main character’s role within the scene?  No problem.  Want to jump around between character perspectives, and reference back to the reader things that only they (as the audience) are aware of within the greater plot?  Your only limitation is your creativity here.  However (oh, come now, you knew it was coming) it is important to keep in mind that too much freedom within a prose can also very easily tire out a reader.  When you present multiple viewpoints, it might make it harder for readers to bond with any characters (let alone the intended main protagonists of the story), or get invested in the dilemmas and outcomes that befall any of them.  In other words, too much information can create perspective fatigue, which is why even a narrative written from a third-person-omniscient perspective will often self-limit when to utilize its omniscience.

I spend some time here going over some of the strengths and drawbacks of the different narrative perspectives available to writers, not in order to argue for using one form over the other, but to simply give an overview why someone might wish to choose one over the other (depending on what sort of story is being written).  By far, the only real thing I am arguing for in this post is the importance of consistency in writing.  Meaning that whatever perspective you choose for your story’s narrative, you have to stick with it, otherwise you are setting yourself up for a grueling writing experience, and increasing the likelihood of the final draft being a frustrating mess to read (as much as it will be one to write).

It is perfectly fine to start out with one perspective, and then decide that the story is better served if written from a different perspective, but when faced with such a case the correct action is to take the time to go back to the beginning and rewrite everything to match the now better fitting narrative for the story.

Consistency. Consistency. Consistency.  That is the only true lesson here.

The Muse, She Calls at Night

Depending on whom you ask, the severity of what it means to have writer’s block ranges from a minor annoyance to an anxiety inducing migraine.  Everyone experiences a bit of writer’s block now and again.  Often it takes the form of not knowing how to verbalize going from Point A to Point P in a prose; or, at least, not knowing how to write it seamlessly enough that it would count as decent writing.  In these cases, it can be something as simple as the ideal word or phrase that turns it all around to unclog the ol’ writer’s pipelines.  Other times, just the act of persistent writing (followed by heavy editing)  is enough to help get the creative juices flowing back onto the page.

As is to be expected, the people who feel the most emotionally committed to what they are trying to write tend to feel the most distraught when their creativity is experiencing a slowdown, or has reached a complete halt altogether.  If you find yourself in a situation like this, then you are fortunate enough that there is plenty of advice out there for you.  Reading more (both related and unrelated works) to inspire your own writing, is one of them.  As is the aforementioned idea to persevere through the block through sheer willpower and keep typing away until something halfway decent starts manifesting itself.  Exercise, eating a well-balanced meal, and getting enough sleep are probably somewhere on the list, too.  Someone once told me that it’s also worthwhile to try stepping away from one’s writing entirely to cure writer’s block.  Although I’m sure this might work for some, I’ve also seen it have the opposite effect of causing writer’s to lose the motivation to go back to an unfinished work the more time they spend away from it.

In this sea of helpful remedies to cure writer’s block, I would like to take a moment to share what helps me personally ward off this dreaded ailment.  It’s more of a writing guideline–or routine–I have found to be the most conducive to getting me where I need to be when confronted with the heavy hurdle of staring at a blank page.   And it can be plainly stated as:

Write at night, and edit by day. 

For me, there’s just something about writing in those last few hours before bedtime that gets my creativity firing at its full capacity.  Maybe it’s the fatigue of the day, where my mind had already spent several hours going through a few rough drafts long before I ever started to write a word down.  Or perhaps it’s a combination of the still of the night, and the dreamlike state of slumber already taking a hold of my senses to steer my imagination where it needs to go.  I don’t really know what it is, but for me the writing muse comes at night.

Now, I also added the bit about editing by day, which shouldn’t be ignored.  While I might feel most inspired to write at night, I’m also more prone to make avoidable grammatical errors when I’m already drifting off to sleep.  This is why, after I hit save and turn in for the night, I’ll spend the next day (or two) going through what I had written to fix any spelling mistakes, cluttered diction, or to revise anything that might have looked decent when first written, but in the light of day reads like it’s been overworked, or is off in some other way.

Is this an obsessive compulsive routine that needs to be followed to the letter for me to be able to write anything?  Of course not!  Plenty of things get written and edited by day, too, within a few short hours, with no creative hindrance whatsoever.  Just like there are nights when the muse decides to turn in early and doesn’t bother to come at all for one project, and barely manages to phone it in for another.  However, outliers shouldn’t be used to negate a general trend.

I will freely admit, though, that I have always been somewhat of a night owl, laced with infrequent bouts of insomnia.  Hence, it’s possible that I just happen to be the personality type for whom a habit of nightly writing comes the easiest, and you might not be.  But, if you are struggling with writer’s block, and none of the other remedies have offered you much relief in the matter, do feel welcome to try my personal guideline out for yourself.  Take the last two hours or so before your normal bedtime (no need to force wakefulness past your usual comfort level), and see if it helps unclog that cerebral blockage.  Just be prepared to possibly have to edit and revise a few things the next day, like a motherfucker!

Forcing the Narrative

So you’ve decided to write a story.  Before you begin, you put together a pretty coherent outline.  You have your protagonists and antagonists all clearly panned out.  You might not know exactly how long it will be, or all the minor details that will pull the whole plot together, but if there’s one thing you do know it’s exactly how the major parts of this story will progress from beginning, to climax, to finish.  There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem–your characters aren’t behaving like they should.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, really.  The dialogue is crisp and clean; without too many overly excessive and cumbersome adjectives repetitively cluttering up the prose.  All the different personalities are well laid out, and totally not cliche or one-dimensional.  There’s a deep subtext noticeable throughout the work, though not of the rambling variant [yeah, suck on that, David Foster Wallace].  But there’s something that just is not working, and it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out why your narrative is not behaving as it should–as you have so clearly planned it out from beginning, to middle, to end.

What the hell is going on?!

Well, you’re in luck, because I may just have the solution to your problem.  The problem probably isn’t that the story you’ve set out to write is unmanageable, or that the characters you’re eager to create aren’t as capable of being the greatest heroes and villains in fiction as you’ve imagined them to be.  More than likely, the problem is you.  By which I mean, the problem is that rather than letting your story unfold, and your characters respond and adapt to their surroundings, you have allowed yourself to get stuck in one of the easiest pitfalls for an author to find her or himself in: you have forced the narrative.

Forcing the narrative can happen in many different ways, but the most common occurs when authors stubbornly refuse to follow the natural progression of the story they have set out to create, for no other reason than that doing so may deviate from the original blueprint they have arbitrarily committed themselves to in their minds.  And, of course, stagnant character progression is often the first victim to suffer as a result of this stubbornness.

Say, for example, that you’re writing a story that has two characters that you know you intent to have fall in love halfway through the plot.  You introduce them separately to the reader, so each can have distinct personalities that your potential audience will relate to.  They spent all these pages developing identities that are unique and self-sustaining (as they very well should be), but the moment you finally have them interact with each other–the moment the entirety of your whole plot hitherto was supposed to be leading up to–and…there’s nothing.

Where you thought the dialogue would flow smoothly between these two people you crafted to be perfect for one another, all their exchanges instead sound too contrived to be authentic.  You can force them to say all the things you think are necessary to convey the message that they are love-bound soulmates, but every time you do just that everything that comes out of their mouths starts to read like a rejected script for a corny made-for-TV movie of the week.

So what gives?  Are you such a lousy writer you can’t even get a genuine romance plot right?  Maybe…or maybe you’re working to hard to wedge a square peg trope into a heart-shaped prose.  By which I mean, maybe the characters that seemed perfect for each other before you put pen to paper…err…I mean, fingertip to keyboard?… whatever, the point I’m making is that a plot idea can seem perfect before you set out to write it, but once you get going it can become downright impossible to stay true to said idea without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative you have created up to that point.

As already mentioned, this dilemma can show itself in the most basic of details.  Including the very issue of whose story it’s going to be.  You might have a main character in mind from the start, but the more time you spend with him the more you start feeling like writing intriguing dialogue for him is a strenuous task taking up way too much of your creative concentration than it should.  Perhaps you even find yourself preferring to spend time with secondary characters that have taken on more interesting lives compared to your once-great-now-bland protagonist.

“Well, what’s to be done in this case?”  Good question, hypothetical reader!  When you are in the thick of this frustrating bit of a writer’s conundrum, it’s easy to miss the simplest of solutions staring back right in your sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes.  That is to say:  Screw your preliminary outline.  Tear up your rough draft notes (it’s called a rough draft for a reason, after all).  Go with what your instincts tell you as a reader first, and ignore the self-righteous indignation of your inner-writer unwilling to deviate from an unworkable premise.

Are two characters not hitting it off as well as you thought they would?  Fine, try having them hate each other instead.  Or even try pairing them up with side characters that showed more prospect in the plot, and see where that goes.  Is your main character too wooden to lead the story the way you hoped?  Then why not sideline him, and shift the perspective onto a different character whose personality and dialogue carries your narrative forward with so much more ease than you ever thought possible?

All these options are readily available to you, because, no matter what, it is your world–it can only exist as you wish it to.  But you need to trust your instincts, not just as a writer, but also as a reader on what makes for compelling storytelling.  And you are allowed to change your mind about the details of the happenings in your fictional world, if these changes help bring about the greater narrative you set out to breathe life into.  Treat the initial bits of ideas that inspired you to start on your journey as just that–a cursory launching point to something better.  Nothing you write down–be it at the beginning, the middle, or the end–is sacred scripture.  It is not absolute, or inadaptable to subsequent burst of creativity that may strike you once you have already begun to feverishly churn out the bulk of your prose.

It’s important to be aware that if something doesn’t feel right about your story to you as you are barely writing it, it will definitely not seem right to your readers as they are reading it.  Even if they might not know how to articulate what’s so off-putting about it when they notice a belabored prose, the audience can definitely sense when something isn’t working as well as it could be.  And forcing a narrative, in an otherwise great story, is a perfect way to ensure that it won’t be working for anyone; neither you, nor your characters–but, above all else, not the reading public.