Sunday, July 19, 2015

Is Your Character Development Too Much, Too Little, Or Just Right?

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...

My answer:

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!



  1. Listen to Todd. I have read plenty of books about writing. Todd packs some of the most valuable advice from those books into a small space here.

    1. Thanks, Dave! Glad to be of help.


  2. Thank you for more invaluable insights! After reading your response I was thinking how this should probably be common knowledge but much of it certainly is not, from a writing perspective at least.

    On a different note; what are your thoughts on character points-of-view? I ask because I'm in the process of writing what I hope to be my first book and I have more than one main character. I started out writing one in first-person and another in third, then changed them both to third-person (present) and am regretting the change. Is there a formula or rule-of-thumb to this or should I just go with my instincts? Thank you for your help!

    1. Thanks for the question, Anonymous. There are many way to deal with POV issues.

      On a first book, I'd keep it consistent throughout the book. You will have enough problems to grapple within that first book. You don't need to complicate things by getting fancy with POV.

      I'd either choose First Person, Past Tense or Third Person ,Past Tense, and I wouldn't jump from one to the other.

      The advantages of First Person are that it makes many stories easier to write because you can simply put yourself in the character of the narrator and then tell the story as if it were your own. First Person is also very accessible to the reader. Readers are more likely to suspend their disbelief with First Person. Perhaps the biggest downside to First Person is that the narrator has to be very interesting to sustain a reader through an entire novel.

      The advantages of Third Person are that you can jump around from one set of characters to another. And you can just as easily change scene locations. A simple space break is all you need to go from a scene in the Rocky Mountains to a scene on the streets of Mumbai.

      As for past vs. present tense, the vast majority of novels are told in past tense. Readers are simply more comfortable with past tense. As such, it's hard to justify present tense.

      A critical thing to remember about character POV is to keep it consistent within any single scene. If you start a scene telling it from Joe's point of view, you have to stay with that. If you want to reveal Mary's thoughts, then start a new scene from her point of view. Changing character POV within a scene (what we call head hopping) is a no, no, because it makes it hard for a reader to get into a character's head and identify with that character. It's also disjointed and makes the story seem to jerk around from one character to another.

      Of course, some authors who want to be radical and experimental may write a novel in Second Person, Present Tense and fill their scenes with character POV shifts. They may succeed at getting someone to think they are very intellectual and avant garde, but they'll be lucky if they sell a book to anyone but their mother.

      Good luck!