Last week, I received an email from a fellow writer. This person asked how a writer knows when they’ve developed a character enough, not enough, or too much. I thought the question and my answer would make a useful blog post.
Here's the letter:
Realizing you met several people at the Book Fest Solano in Vacaville this spring, I do not expect for you to remember me!
Having said that, I enjoyed visiting with you and purchased several of your books. All favorites. Thanks for writing!
If you have time, I have a fairly basic question that bugs me as I write my mysteries.
As a mystery writer, I find myself either not developing my characters enough (I don't want to bore my reader) or possibly too much. How do you know when too much is really too much? Does this apply to all characters in the same mystery or should it vary?
Thank you in advance...
Hi Fellow Writer,
Thanks for writing.
Your question is a valuable one, but I don't think there is a black-and-white answer. So I'll toss out some general guiding concepts that I use.
Yes, I'd vary how much you reveal of character according to how important your character is to your story.
Deciding how much one should develop characters is probably best looked at by the principle of making sure that everything you write advances the story and moves it in the direction you need. No matter how interesting a particular character tidbit is, if it doesn't help move the story forward, then it should go.
Thus some characters need only the briefest mention with, perhaps, one telling detail. Other characters that are central to the story might need a great deal of development for us to understand where they came from and what is involved in their character transformation.
A critical aspect to how you reveal character is to try to stick only to dialogue and action and delete your exposition (the stuff you tell the reader because you think the reader needs to know it). Don't worry, we all write with exposition, but the more of it we can eventually cut out, the more interesting the story will be. (Readers are very smart. They can figure out all manner of aspects to your story without being told. All they have to do is read action and dialogue, and those reveal nearly everything the reader needs to know.)
This is another variation of the "show, don't tell" rule, i.e., don't tell us that your character is a fastidious dresser and might be a misogynist and that he smokes cigars. Instead, show him standing in front of the mirror adjusting his tie and picking at flecks of lint on his shirt all while saying disparaging things to the woman in the room. Then show the woman nearly gagging on the smell of the cigar in his teeth.
If the nature of this character's personality is critical to the story, and if you show it instead of telling it, then we probably can't get too much of it. And we'll be intrigued to see every little aspect of this character as it is revealed.
Here are two editing techniques that many writers use to help with character development. I do both of these things.
First, when you are done with your first draft, go through and determine to trim it by 30%. Your goal should be to tell the same story as you go from, say, 500 pages to 350 pages. What happens is that you'll never throw out your best stuff. You'll automatically keep every passage that makes you laugh, or cry. You’ll keep everything that gives you anger or tension or fear. You'll keep your most scintillating dialogue and your most emotional scenes. As you force yourself to cut, you'll toss the weakest stuff, perhaps a bit of dialogue and a bit of action, and you’ll take out a whole lot of exposition. In the end, you'll have a much tighter story that will leave the reader wishing the book was longer (the best way to ensure that they rave to their friends and buy your other books).
Second, read your book aloud, imaging that famous book reviewers and English professors and New York agents are listening. That is a good way to identify unnecessary stuff regarding both characters and plot. As you read, you'll be proud of certain parts. You might also suffer hints of embarrassment at other parts as you think that your imaginary listeners are frowning or rolling their eyes. (At least, this is my response to the reading aloud exercise!)
Good luck, and keep writing!