One of the most important aspects of creating a memorable character is to give your reader the opportunity to participate. When I am reading truly good writing, I feel as though the author and I are working together in a partnership. He or she is providing me with a breadcrumb trail to follow, guiding me down a particular path, but allowing me to stop and look around from time to time, to take in whatever scenery I might conjure along the way. The truly accomplished author does not tell me everything – nor should they. If a detail is especially important for me as a reader to be aware of, then the writer should provide that information. Otherwise, let my reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. Trust your writing enough to know that you don’t have to include every single detail.
Ernest Hemingway called this the “iceberg theory” of prose, and he discussed it in his book, Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
In High Five, by author Janet Evanovich, we are introduced to a character by the name of Randy Briggs. As it turns out, Randy is a "little person." This is a crucial fact to share with the reader, because a good deal of the slapstick humor that Ms. Evanovich is so adept at writing comes from the juxtaposition between bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and the ways in which Mr. Briggs manages to outmaneuver her attempts to capture him.
I recently read a novel (which shall remain nameless) where a potentially critical piece of information was withheld from the reader. As I began to read this particular book, I was introduced to a strong, but aging, woman executive. She was upset about being pushed out, and after a good many pages, I felt like I knew the character, and that she and I were fighting the good fight together. Then, out of nowhere, the author just happens to interject the fact that this lady is also African-American.
This character must have encountered any number of critical, life-changing moments in her climb to the top, especially as a woman of color. What offended me was not only the fact that I wasn’t told this detail sooner, but that it wasn’t mentioned again in the entire book! If this fact was important enough to tell me in the first place, then surely it was important enough to explore. But that author dropped the ball, as though adding this particular character trait was just a quaint afterthought. It’s simply not nice to play tricks like that on your reader.
As I promised, I used some of my own prompts and came up with a character introduction. In order to keep today’s post a reasonable length, I have continued with more over on my personal blog:
Feel free to visit me there and comment/share what you come up with!
As ever, Happy Writing!
Writer Beth Zellner is currently finishing her first novel
and is excited to begin on the journey to representation!