Monday, April 15, 2019

Help Your Reader Fall in Love with Your Characters


by Jan Drexler 

The literary world has changed in the last fifty years. In the past, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien could spend three pages introducing us to his main character in “The Hobbit” (Bilbo Baggins,) complete with a description of his home and family history – and he does this in the first three pages of the book. I happen to like that style, and when I read “The Hobbit,” I settle into my comfy chair ready to lose myself in the story.



But things have changed! In our time, authors need to get to the action as soon as possible and leave the backstory and descriptions for later.

How do you do this?

Layer by layer.


 

Onions or cake. Take your pick!

Either way, we peel our character’s layers back little by little, letting our readers learn to know our characters by their actions. Or a comment here. A thought there.

It’s tempting to tell the reader everything! We love our characters and we want our readers to love them, too!

But an information dump (where you give your reader way too much information at once) is like your co-worker setting you up for a blind date with her favorite cousin. She has been gushing over this guy for two weeks, telling you all about his job, family, house, dog, his appendicitis attack in 8th grade… But really, don’t you want to meet him first? Don’t you want to be the one to decide if you want to get to know him better?

Do your readers a favor and peel away those layers little by little.

Here’s an example from my work in progress, Softly Blows the Bugle. We’ve already met the hero, Aaron, in the first scene. There we found out that he was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. First layer.

In the second scene, we begin to see him through his own eyes as he’s talking to his friend Jonas:

“But the war changed you.” Aaron let his mind go back to the angry, fiery young man he had been, hot to kill any Yankee he could find after a scouting party shot Grandpop. “It changed both of us. War will do that.”

That snippet is all we know so far about Aaron’s past. It’s just one more layer, but the story isn't finished yet.

Later in the book, but still early, we’ll learn more about Grandpop and what he meant to Aaron. Another layer.

Somewhere around the middle of the story, memories of Aaron’s mother will begin to surface. Thin layers peel away, revealing his home life as a child.

Toward the end, we’ll learn the secret of Aaron’s past, and the reason he believes the lie that has ruled his life. Peeling back layer by layer by layer.

Meanwhile, all through the story we watch Aaron’s actions, how he treats other people, and how they respond to him. Layers.

By the end of the book, if I have done my work well, we will know Aaron’s story, his struggles, his spiritual battles, and his physical battles. And we will know the inner man. The hero the readers will fall in love with.



At the same time, we need to be careful not to peel back a layer, revealing a hint of an important detail, and then never bring it up again.

For example, what if you read that smidgen of information at the beginning of the book (Aaron let his mind go back to the angry, fiery young man he had been, hot to kill any Yankee he could find after a scouting party shot Grandpop,) but then you never learned any more about Grandpop or that event? Or what if I didn’t let the readers see the process of the change between then and now? What if I never let the other shoe drop?

Among the things I look for in my revision process are unfinished trails like this. And if I don’t catch them, I pray that my editor will!




Let's chat! Have you ever experienced the "information dump" in your writing? What about in your reading? Or, does it bother you when an author leaves a detail hanging? (It's one of my pet peeves!)

Thanks for reading, and have a blessed Holy Week!




Jan Drexler spent her childhood dreaming of living in the Wild West and is now thrilled to call the Black Hills of South Dakota her home. When she isn’t writing she spends much of her time satisfying her cross-stitch addiction or hiking and enjoying the Black Hills with her husband of more than thirty-six years. Her writing partner is her corgi, Thatcher, who makes life…interesting.




45 comments:

  1. I'm probably guilty of info dumps, but I love peeling the layers back on characters so much I'm more prone to leaving details hanging. (Sorry;) Thankfully critique partners help me curb how many shoes get taken to the party--and whether they match.

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    1. I love that image, Samantha! "how many shoes get taken to the party--and whether they match" Perfect!

      And critique partners are invaluable, aren't they? I'm so glad you have good ones!

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    2. Another set of eyes on the story is always good!

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    3. Samantha, I love that expression! :)

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  2. I think we all pray our editors catch things like that, along with everything else. Definitely annoying to always have to wonder if there was more or not. :-)

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    1. God bless my editor. She's a jewel! Folks who don't appreciate editors probably haven't worked with one as good as mine. :)

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  3. Jan, yes, we should peel back our characters' layers like an onion (loved that little snippet of Shrek!). I try not to dump, but I"m sure I do it some. Rachel Hauck talks about sprinkling Backstory Breadcrumbs, especially in the first 50 pages, and I try to remember that as I write.

    I am notorious for leaving things undone. Thank goodness for those who catch them for me! :)

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    1. Jeanne, I like the breadcrumb analogy! Must think of Hansel and Gretel the next time I start a story. :)

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    2. Ooh, I, took, like the image of bread crumbs!

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    3. I like the breadcrumbs, too! And to sprinkle heavily in the first 50 pages is good advice.

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  4. Excellent blog post, Jan! That layering is so important. I did mega info dumps when I first started writing. Shame on me. Finally, I learned less is more.

    I love the little word RUE...resist the urge to explain. That's always on my mind when I craft a story. Readers are so savvy. I don't need to tell them everything! And I don't need to repeat what I've already told them! :)

    I'm a medical technologist, and early on, I wrote a medical series. My specialty was blood banking. When I wrote a character who worked in the blood bank, I went into great detail about the tests she ran. I LOVED THAT SCENE. My editor said it had to go! It still makes me laugh. I wrote the scene for me, not for the readers. Thankfully, my editor recognized my mistake.

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    1. Debby, the same thing happened when I wrote a microbiologist character! I included way too much.

      In my old critique group, I often got RUE written on my mss! So this is something I had to learn and still work on.

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    2. I was thinking of RUE as I wrote this post! It's so much more fun for the reader to discover tidbits through showing rather than learning them through telling.

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  5. Jan, thank you for this.

    I've dropped threads in the past and the present! One of the best things I've found about doing a hard copy read-through every hundred pages or so (the best breaking spot around there) is that I reconnect with the book's beginning and I can see what's going on and either insert foreshadows or reasonings or spot a thread I dropped and either change it or note it for later, to make sure I don't forget it.

    Mary Connealy has often said "Don't forget the baby!"

    She would write scenes and then say "But where's the baby in all of this???" and that's a great cue for us: Don't forget the baby!

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    1. I had a story with a dog and forgot it for a few chapters! :) So yeah, always remember the baby!

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    2. Yes! I've done that, too.... where's the dog????? STARVING ON PAGE 42!!!!

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    3. LOL, Ruthy! My thought was that readers would fear he'd gone to the bathroom all over the house! hahaha

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    4. I do the same thing, Ruthy. Every few chapters - maybe four or five - I go back to the beginning and read through. That helps catch the stray tidbits!

      And I remember that Mary wrote a blog post on "where's the baby?" Ever since then, whenever I read one of her books, I'm watching that baby!

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    5. I forgot two babies in the book I've been writing. I have a scene that takes place on May Day and the mom was taking her six-year-old daughter around town to deliver May baskets. But I somehow forgot that there are premature baby twins at home. After writing the scene, I said out loud, "Where are the babies?" Apparently I just left them home alone! I fixed it by having the girl just deliver May baskets in her neighborhood while the mom stands on the porch watching her.

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  6. Hi Jan:

    I can agree with everything you wrote about layering because it is a valid way to write and to maintain reader interest.

    However, I must say the very phrase, "information dump," is a pejorative and as such is bad per se. Consider this: what if what you write is actually better called 'an information rich environment'?

    One best selling author writes this way. He fully invests his readers in his story by providing several pages of orientation information that normally would be rationed out over several chapters. He does this in order to show the reader that the story itself is worth reading. In short, the reader does not have to read further just to find out enough information to determine if the story is worth reading in the first place.

    Investing the reader here means that the reader emotionally cares about the characters and what happens to them. The idea is to get the readers 'invested' as soon as possible in the story.

    The challenge here is creating an inciting incident that is naturally super rich in backstory while at the same time making the action the story driver. To me the goal for a writer is to do both at once.

    I object to the theory that backstory is some kind of candy that you can ration out to readers to keep them reading when the story itself is not as compelling as it should be to act as an incentive to turn the pages. Don't hold back the candy in order to deal with a sagging middle. Doing so sanctions sagging middles. It's like the sugar that makes the medicine go down!

    Anyway, I like stories that invest me in what is going on as soon as possible. When essential information is withheld just to keep me reading I notice it and I don't like it. And if I don't get enough backstory soon enough I just give up on the book. I can afford to do this as I have hundreds of books in my TBR file! That is just the way of the Kindle!

    Thanks for your post, again, I don't object to layering at all. I just want more, sooner. Besides, it's not really backstory if it is part of the present action and story advancement.

    Vince

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    1. Vince, do you think it depends very much on the genre whether the author creates an 'information rich environment'?

      Example: Tom Clancy.

      His techno-spy-military-thrillers are chock full of detailed information about submarines, sub-machine guns, and subalterns, but that is what his readers crave. They want all the details and the cast of a thousand characters and a story where everything is known, even if not to all the characters at the same time.

      But in a romance, because we want the reader to fall in love with our characters while they are falling in love with themselves, information about them is at a premium. If there is nothing left to discover about the hero or heroine and their motives, why keep reading?

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    2. Erica, I was wondering that same thing. I think it depends a lot on genre. But I do like the idea of a backstory-rich inciting incident (as long as the backstory isn't given in one big chunk).

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    3. I can promise you that too much of anything hits the chopping block in romances, for sure... A little goes a long way. But Erica, what a great point, in a spy novel or a thriller or an action/drama, those details might be setting a stage.

      Vince, great insight on all of this.

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    4. Thank you for your comment, Vince! But I'm going to stick with the term "back story dump," pejorative or not.

      Because I see a big difference between an author giving important information at the beginning of the story - like Tolkien introducing us to his fantasy world or Clancy setting the reader in an information rich environment - and an information dump.

      Too many authors start their story wandering around in their characters' minds, replaying conversations that happened in the past, revisiting old love affairs, and reliving situations that really don't have anything to do with the story.

      I recently read an unpublished piece that spent the first scene in one character's POV as she relived a traumatic event ten years earlier, then the next scene relived the same event in another character's POV. That was information dump to the max! Yes, that traumatic event was important to the heroine's backstory, but it was revealed to the reader in the wrong way.

      I think genre makes a difference, like Erica said, but too often an information dump is just a tool authors use when they don't know how else to reveal the backstory.

      So, no information dumps...but the right information in the right place.

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    5. Hi Erica:

      You are so right about some genres being better suited to having an 'information rich environment' right from the get go.

      Take a suspense/mystery. First there is the action that comes from the suspense…the fact that danger can strike the hero and heroine at any time. Then there is the mystery to figure out to help turn pages.

      Even more: backstory is often needed to create the foundation as to why the hero or heroine was able to overcome the next attempt on their lives.

      So I totally agree with different genres there will be varying degrees of difficulty creating an 'information rich environment'.

      I have a slight difference on your comment: "If there is nothing left to discover about the hero or heroine and their motives, why keep reading?"

      There could be many reasons to continue if the conflict is not based on such discoveries. What about friends to lovers who know each other very well who must compete for the same job? Or are fighting on different sides of an environmental issue? Or when the heroine is a widow who has vowed never to marry another policeman and the hero from the past happens to be a policeman? All these cases demand a richer inciting incident and streams of conflict.

      I think all genres can be structured in a way that will maximize the opportunities to justify a great revelation of backstory sooner rather than later.

      Vince

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    6. Hi Jan:

      I really can't object to your comment above because as you state it, it is surely correct. I would like to elucidate the idea a little more.

      If there is a great deal of information given in a short space and it does not advance the story and it is not the type of writing a reader would really enjoy reading (ala Clancy details), then I would agree that is bad and deserves the term "backstory dump". Okay.

      Now, please consider this case, the exact same backstory information, say 9 facts, appears in about the same number of words but it does advance the story or it is such writing the it delights the reader, (like Betty Neels writing pages of description about high class restaurant interiors that her readers would love to visit and eat but never will), then that very same amount of backstory, 9 facts, is a valid 'information rich environment'. It acts to keep the reader turning the pages. So even if it is dense backstory, it is not a dump.

      My goal is to encourage writers to increase backstory information sooner and not to use the slow release of essential information to turn pages. Doing this seems to me to be a little like giving your readers caffeine to keep them awake writing in a way that would keep them awake!

      Again, this is just a different insight and not an objection to what you wrote which was fine.

      Vince

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    7. Hi Ruth:

      I think you do very well what I like best concerning the early release of backstory which often creates 'instant' sympathy for the characters.

      Consider, "The Lawman's Second Chance", the hero's wife died of cancer and the hero does not want to subject his children to having a second mother also die of cancer. The heroine had her cancer cause her husband to leave her because he couldn't deal with it. She does not want that to ever happen to her again.

      I think the backstory was released very quickly in this story. The conflict is how can these problems be overcome? And I think this is 'future story'. What can they do today and tomorrow to work on their problems which are very real and very understandable?

      I like your idea that there can be a problem with 'too much of anything'. But then, I don't think you ever do that.

      In Missy's book, "The Reunion Valentine", I believe she gave away almost all the backstory on the first two pages which made me love the heroine at once and very eager to learn what happens to her from that day forward. This early release can be done and when it is, I love it! :")

      Vince

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  7. Jan, I love the post, and I love the descriptive analogies in the comments! We have a talented bunch of SeekerVillagers, don't we?

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  8. *Guilty party waving arms wildly*
    Most recent WIP found me guilty of the info dump. It's all better now thanks to crit partners. We're still working through the rest to make sure I tied up all the loose ends. I decided to completely change the ending. No regrets since there's still plenty of time to check and double check. I love these writing tips posts. Great reminders.

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    1. Tabitha, that's the beauty of critique partners! And also the beauty of being able to revise and polish. :)

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    2. That's also the beauty of first, second, third, and fourth drafts! Like you said, Tabitha, you have time to go back!

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  9. Great post, Jan! I love the example you shared. That's a great way to show how to trickle the info into the story.

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  10. Oops!! I accidentally posted a blog post just now that was supposed to be scheduled for later this month! I apologize. I quickly took it back to draft but hope it didn't confuse anyone who may have entered the blog during those 3 seconds. :)

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    1. LOL! I think we've all done that at least once!

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    2. Yeah, my heart sank when I realized I hadn't put in the post date! LOL

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  11. Jan, this is a great post, and yes, it's all about the layers. Just like we get to know people little by little, readers want to do the same. Otherwise, what reason do we have to keep turning the page?

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  12. So much great advice! Thank you for sharing.

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  13. Hi Jan!
    Thanks for this great article. I find I almost always info dump in the first scene of the first draft, which means that the entire first chapter is usually totally rewritten or chopped altogether. I've been struggling with how to do this in my current wip, and you have triggered some great ideas. Can't wait to get to it!

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  14. Great post, Jan. I am trying to watch out for information dump in my writing. My first draft of the book I'm writing definitely had too much of that. I also dislike it when a detail is left hanging. I can't think of any examples, but I always notice. Even some TV shows or movies can leave something hanging and it drives me nuts.

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  15. Info dumps are so easy to do! I recently took a seminar on the first ten pages and it opened my eyes. �� I finished reading a book in March in which one crucial detail (the name of the disease the heroine was working to find a cure for) and it drove me crazy the whole time. It detracted from the urgency of finding the cure. The author explained the reasons why she left out the detail in the author note. Lee-Ann B

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