Monday, January 24, 2011

Characters You Can Pinch - Part 2

Take Time to Familiarize Your Reader with Your Characters


Okay, so I'm sure we've all read novels where we've skimmed description.  I know I have.  And it's not just when it comes to the layout of a scene, the way a battleship functions, the schematics of a missile.  Sometimes, it's an info dump on a character.

As writers, we've all heard of the expression info dump.  To a serious writer, it's the equivalence of swear words.  So, how do you plug in character information (I refer to background, not physical descriptions) without it becoming those two dirty words?  Make sure the information you give is relevant to moving the story forward.  Does the information provided add depth to the character, make them real, make them characters you can pinch?

My suggestion first off:  keep these type of passages brief and limited, otherwise you risk being guilty of the other dirty words - telling not showing.  

Now, I used to glance over this aspect in my writing.  I leaned closer to the other extreme - not revealing enough.  Now there are plenty of ways to reveal character traits, attitudes, agendas, etc.  But what I wanted to bring out here is, there are places where a passage about your character is completely acceptable and actually has a tangible result on their believability.

Baldacci, one of my favorite writers, does this quite well.  In fact, I learned from him it's okay to slow the pace of the story (be cautious however) and expand upon a character.  BUT, make sure whatever you reveal in these type of passages comes into play for the novel, otherwise they're wasted words.  Your reader will get tired, put down your book and might not pick it up again.

I'll give you an example from my most recently completed novel:  Assassination of a Dignitary.

Some background.  Christian is the son of the don, the boss of the Italian mafia family.  This is the first scene I tell from his POV.
Christian snapped his fingers on both hands.  It wasn’t a move that came naturally to him.  He had worked to perfect the mannerism over time.  Yet his father never considered him to be a focused person because he couldn’t chose one killing method.  Maybe he had a form of dexterity when it came to that.  He wasn’t limited to guns or knives.  He rather enjoyed experimentation.  He would teach the old man something about focus and improvising.
The purpose?  Character development.  You can see that he's a determined person, and has focus.  His father doesn't see him the same way.  This brief description serves to introduce conflict as well, making the passage not only informative as to Christian's character, yet relevant to the novel.  It puts the reader in Christian's mindset.  Maybe you can sense an unpredictable nature?

In this scene, Christian kills one of his men because he failed him.  The murder is executed in a unique way (I'm not giving everything away lol).

As Christian leaves the room, and the man to die:
Christian snapped his fingers again and closed the door behind him.  The screams resonated through the walls and were heard for minutes before they dissipated to silence.
I’ll give you focus, pops.  Ingo was one of my best men.
Hopefully you can see how I tied character and brief background information together in such a way that Christian isn't a flat character but one you can pinch.  In conclusion, when taking the time to weave in background information, make it it brief and relevant.

Maybe you've done something similar in your own work?  I'd love to read it.  Or if you have any other comments on this subject, please post.
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Next post:  Characters You Can Pinch - Part 3:  Using Character Description to Your Advantage