When I read a new book, the last thing I want is to be immediately bombarded with character description and back story. I think this is because it mirrors how I like to get to know people in real life – slowly.
I’m turned off, almost distrustful, when I meet someone new who wants to share every intimate detail early in our relationship. The beauty of a friendship or even a romantic relationship is that you can still learn new things about the person years later. What’s the hurry?
When an author rushes to describe either physical characteristics, or worse, what’s led the character to the point where the story actually starts, I’m likely to get bored quickly – if I’m not going to get to use my imagination or create my own theories, what’s really in it for me?
I recently read The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani. Here’s a novel whose author knows how to dole out information at a pace that kept me interested throughout the entire story. We’re well aware at the start that Thea Atwell is being sent to the camp because something disturbing has happened, something so upsetting that only her father accompanies her – both her mother and brother stay back at home. The provocative story unfolds expertly, allowing the reader to uncover that secret, and along the way, discover the totality of who Thea really is.
By nature, a reader is someone who enjoys discovering things, and using their own imagery. As writers we have to respect our readers, and that includes not over-explaining or over-describing characters or situations. Here’s three reasons why introducing your characters slowly is always a good practice:
- Pacing…Your story needs to progress at a pace that is comfortable for your reader in order for them to stay engaged. Giving too much information about the character up front gives the reader the impression they’ve gotten all the good stuff early. If you want to keep them turning the pages, spread out those important details. I don’t mind if you tell me the protagonist is a slightly overweight dog trainer who refuses to dye her gray hair, but leave the fact that she shoplifts steaks on her weekly grocery trips, or that she stuffs the pockets of the clothes she donates with ten-dollar bills for future chapters.
- Lets your readers use their creativity too…Giving a faint or imprecise physical description allows the reader their own interpretations of your characters. Describing your hero only as a handsome ship captain in his mid-forties lets each reader fill in the more specific details, which makes the reading experience more personal and satisfying.
- No Room to Grow…If you introduce your character with a lengthy summary, you don’t leave them the opportunity to travel down unintended paths – and that can be a shame, because most of the time, it’s those organic avenues they travel that really bring them to life. While character sketches are helpful when outlining your story, sticking too closely to what you’ve envisioned early on leaves little room for the characters to find their own voice.
Remember that the characters spoke to you strongly enough to write about them…don’t box them into a corner, and don’t turn interested readers into just passive observers. Trust the reader to be an integral part in bringing your story to life!