Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 6)

Leaving Out Detail

Detail. There’s no end of detail. You can write detail over detail and still not have all the detail. In essence, detail is infinite, so all practicalities require that some detail be left out. It’s up to you, the writer, to determine which detail is appropriate and useful and what detail is just detail. You want your detail working for you, moving that story along or providing entertainment to the reader, rather than bogging down the narrative or boring the reader.

Characters often get interesting when we don’t have detail about them. The “mysterious stranger” is a much used trope because having a character that you don’t know is inherently interesting to the reader. The same is true of murderers and villains.

Some stories revolve around missing facts, such as mysteries and suspense. The reader is purposefully left in the dark, just as the main characters are, and they must make their decisions based on incomplete information. By missing facts, we’re not sure who the spy is or might betray who. By having too much information, you kill all the tension formed by doubt.

The beginning of any book is where detail is the most needed and can easily slide into a fact blizzard. You must leave a great deal of information out at this point simply because no reader can immediately know everything (except the re-reader), so you may as well cut out all facts and information except that which is absolutely needed. You have a whole book to present the rest of you information, so best to present that information closer to where it matters. The only real exception to this is to avoid a deus ex machina, where information suddenly solves a problem for the protagonist.

Here’s my standard example again.
Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.
Now I’ll leave out detail.
Bob had a problem when he walked into that saloon on that cold Montana evening. He had a reason for carrying that loaded gun, freshly oiled and freshly loaded. He had a reason for having fifty cents in his pocket and a chip on his shoulder. He had a reason for pawning his saddle and his horse. And of those reasons, none of them were in that saloon. All he wanted there was a drink and some peanuts.
Cool effect, eh? By not telling you why Bob had a problem, or what that problem was, you get more interested in Bob and the problem. That is, Bob develops more character because I leave out important bits of information.