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All Characters are 3 Dimensional,
First, spend some time getting to know your protagonist (antagonist if it is a person and not a force of nature: ie: a storm or volcano). Explore his/her back-story. This can be done through exercises or even short stories that allow you to go off on tangents that the plot of your story won't support. Once you know who your protagonist is, you'll be able to show your reader subtle details through the course of the story. These details are more than how your character looks; it includes your character's personality traits and beliefs.
Minor characters need very little description. For example, the sex of the cop who takes the pictures at the murder scene is irrelevant - unless having a woman officer would be inappropriate for the time or society of your story. Nor does it matter if she is wearing a wedding band unless she is going to become a significant player in the story.
CSI officer Mary Freebottom moved through the scene, snapping pictures of the deceased with emotional detachment. Michael Muchbaloney watched her work, noting her slim build and the gold band she wore on her left ring finger.
If this is the only time Mary appears in the book, then describing her or Michael's reaction to her is insignificant and does nothing to move the story forward. The exception would be if we learn in the next sentence that who she is tells us something about Michael's character.
He wondered if her wedding band mattered as little to him as his did. If he could keep his best friend, Officer Trublood from noticing, perhaps he could find out.
Corny names aside, if your protagonist is a womanizer and his cheating on his wife contributes to a significant sub plot then a brief description is appropriate, even if he never has the opportunity to talk to the woman mentioned. Once this is established though, there is no need to include even this amount of detail the next time he's around a woman that interests him. Trust your reader to remember these little character details.
For example, in the next chapter your protagonist may encounter another woman he finds attractive.
Trublood stopped talking when the waitress brought their coffee. Michael admired the view of the woman's cleavage as she leaned forward to place their food on the table. He missed the frown of disapproval that flashed across Trublood's face.
This brief description is enough to let us know what effect his womanizing is having on his friendship with his fellow officer. It sets the stage for a later confrontation between the two men, but as the waitress is merely a walk on character who won't be seen again, there is no need to detail the size of her cleavage...unless you're writing an erotic novel where the goal of the story is to titillate your readers. Otherwise, don't belabor the point keep the story moving forward.
The same thought applies to the minor characters' personal history.
General Malone glanced at the young officer who laid the reports on his desk. Private Winston had come a long way from the frightened, abused kid he'd met the first day of boot camp.
You may have a detailed story worked out for Private Winston, but if his purpose in the story is merely to provide the General with supplies and reports, then who he is, doesn't matter to the plot. If Winston is a true bit player then that passage should read very differently.
General Malone glanced at the young officer who laid the reports on his desk. He scowled as he dismissed the man with a salute, angered over the interruption. With Suvette attacking their supply lines, he didn't need a bunch of reports to tell him that they were running out of food.
Instead of focusing on the private's past abuse, we're exploring the general's temperament and the direness of the army's situation.
Some writers fall in love with their characters. Exploring their nature and personality may be more interesting than writing the plot but your reader is there to experience more than a character description. They want to be entertained, made to think, or to be inspired. It's your job to give them a story that fits their needs. There must be a beginning, middle and end and that story should progress without taking side trips into areas that do nothing to move the plot forward or build your primary characters.
For me, half the fun of writing the story is creating new characters and societies, but a detailed description of a bit character's physical appearance or personality is distracting to readers. They don't have the luxury of living inside your head as you create and write your story. They only know what you put on the page. When you include details about a bit character, they may become as interested in those characters as you are, but if the character that piqued their curiosity on page five doesn't appear again in the entire book, they're going to be left with a feeling of incompletion. Not the outcome you want if you're hoping to build a fan base.
Taking too much time to develop unnecessary characters is one of the pitfalls that stall the writing process. Learning to recognize irrelevant and trivial information in your story can be crucial to turning a rambling, unpublishable tome into a brightly polished novel that editors would be pleased to publish.
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