Monday, October 20, 2008

Slowly Revealing a Character

I read the article What Agents Hate the other day. It talks about things agents hate to see in the first chapter. One of the things is a backstory or an information dump. That, I am afraid, is one of the things I struggle with. It is my nature to want people to understand where I am coming from with what I say. Even with this post, I told you about the article I read. I could have just gone into what I have to say, but I gave you the backstory first.

Fictional characters should be like a carving. We begin with a simple blob that has an uninteresting shape. Slowly, we reveal details about this blob until it isn’t a blob any more, but the shape of a person, or an animal or something else. The worst thing we can do with writing about a character is to simply state what he is. Let’s look at an example.

The ball flew high into the air and out over left field. The left fielder watched it and ran back toward the fence. The ball hit the glove and then the player hit the chain link fence. The ball hit the ground and came to a stop at the player’s feet.

“Get the ball Johnny!” Bob yelled above the noise of the crowd as the runner rounded first base.

Bob felt the phone on his belt vibrate. He looked at the display and saw the all too familiar of his secretary’s phone. He had to answer it.

“Can you come to the office?” Her voice was barely audible with everyone either yelling for Johnny to get the ball or for the runner to come home. “We had another break-in.”

“I’m at a ball game.” The last thing Bob wanted to do was to tell Johnny he would have to miss part of another game.

“The police are here and they want to talk to the owner.” Her voice was even harder to hear above the roar of the crowd as the runner crossed home plate. “I didn’t think you would want me to call your father.”

”No, that wouldn’t be good.” Bob looked at his son in left field. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Compare that to:

Many years ago, Bob’s father began a successful furniture manufacturing business. Bob’s father is having health problems and the business has fallen to Bob to run. Bob loves his son very much and would rather watch him play baseball than to work so much. One Saturday, while watching his son play in the most important game of the season, Bob receives a call about a break-in at work. There have been three break-ins during the past week. Bob decides to go to work.

Notice the difference between the two. They both tell us that Bob wants to watch Johnny play and that he is responsible for his father’s business. What it doesn’t tell us is what kind of business it is why he doesn’t want his father called. The second paragraph gives us more information, but the reader doesn’t care. We are more interested in what is going on in the ballgame and whether Bob will watch the game or go to work. It takes longer, but the first version will reveal the most important parts of the backstory in time.