Monday, 12 September 2011

What The Reader Needs To Know

Think of your three closest friends. Now answer these questions: What did their parents do for a living?  Did they have a pet when growing up and if so, what was it called?  What is their favourite film? 

The chances are you're struggling (unless you're 15, in which case you probably got a full house).  Why?  You don't need to know this information to be friends.  It's just the same when we write characters.  

I've just finished reading One Day by David Nicholls and it's startling the lack of hard information we know about the characters throughout. In the opening pages - we only discover their names on the 3rd page by the way - we very quickly get an impression of who the characters really are, through knowing their thoughts and attitudes.  For example, " 'I think reality is over-rated,' he said in the hope that this might come across as dark and charismatic."  We know immediately he is young and not as confident as he might appear to be.  

This is much more interesting than knowing, for example, where he was born or what his father did for a living.  And it also reflects real life.  You are far more likely to know your friend's attitudes to life than you are to know facts about their past history.  So, the reader needs to know about characters' attitudes to life, but not necessarily facts about their past history.

Secondly, how did you learn about your friend's attitudes to life?  You probably knew little bits straight away from how they spoke and dressed, a few more from what they said on that first meeting.  Then, each time you met up you learned a little bit more about what made them tick. You might have had a long heart to heart conversation at some point, but it's unlikely that happened on your first meeting, and even more unlikely that it happens every time you meet up with your friend.  This is exactly the same as when you're writing.  You want to drip feed information to the reader so they gradually build up a picture of your characters.  

Finally, have you ever been to a party where you've met someone who seems on a mission to fill you in on the most interesting topic in the world: them? I've been trapped by someone like this several times in my life. They tell you about themselves in exhaustive detail while you stand there glazing over and hoping you'll be able escape soon.  People like this are bores.  Well, guess what - so are characters who you know everything about when they first turn up.  

One Day is a good example of information being carefully rationed, and the gradual release of information about the characters is one of the factors that have made it such a success.  You really don't need that much backstory information to hook a reader into your characters.   Concentrate on making them interesting, not the facts about them.



Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve noticed this with TV shows recently. They just dive into the action and fill you in as the show progresses. You get to know as little as you need to know to get you through the current scene. And then I think back to the old way where we were basically introduced to each of the characters and told a bit about them before we could get on with the show. Very artificial. No, I’m all in favour of this. Credit your reader with a bit of intelligence and let him do his job, i.e. use his imagination. If you do all the work for him then why the hell is he reading the book in the first place? Again, the best shows on TV are always the ones where they’re miserly with information. Of course they milk it and ruin it – last episode of The X-Files anyone? – but it does keep bums on seats. Books are a slightly different proposition but the basic premise is sound.

Carole Matthews said...

Now all you have to do is convince editors of this... C : ) xx

Helen said...

Good advice here. I think active readers get the most out of a book. When I'm reading I like to be able to fill in some of the blanks myself and form a picture of the characters in my head.

JO said...

I know my characters very well before I let them loose on the WIP. But jut because I know what they eat for breakfast doesn't mean everyone has to. If I know them that well, I can let them speak for themselves - introduce themselves, if you like, to the reader, letting 'bits of self' emerge during the course of the story.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim - we usually know very little about characters in TV shows, just enough to keep the story going.

Carole - I find editors want more of the thought processes rather than actual facts about characters like where they went to uni. I'm always very vague about things like the jobs of main characters and no one seems to mind.

Helen - exactly, it's about filling in the blanks and doing some of the work oneself.

JO - and that's the trick, working out what the reader needs to know. I don't think that anyone ever needs to know what a character has for breakfast (unless there's arsenic in the muesli...)