Jodie Renner, editor & author
Want to write popular fiction that captivates your readers and sells well, with great reviews? It's all about fiction-writing techniques that will enthrall the reader, rather than turning them off.
Entice your readers, don’t bore them.
Imagine you’ve just met someone for the
first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long
monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships,
plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure
out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know
this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?
Or have you ever had a friend go into
great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they
recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone
out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details
in interesting tidbits, please!
In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a
new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action
to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages
of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often
don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain
things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that
detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact,
they’ll probably skim through it, and maybe even find something else to do
Don’t start with your character alone, musing or reminiscing.
related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on
the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting
past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with
the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude
involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story
progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and
innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and
observations by other characters.
Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!
Contrary to what a lot of aspiring
authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of
detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s
best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as
you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical
impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice
whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or
overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.
you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to
them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on
them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of
unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip and wonder how much of it is
actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions
of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude,
personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.
Involve and engage the readers.
It’s also important to remember that
readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of
dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure
out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a
stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.
nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be
immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there
themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to
figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether
they’re to be trusted or not.
Let the readers get to know your characters
gradually, just like they would in real-life.
For ideas on how to approach introducing
your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where
you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting
for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to
snippets of conversation. A few people interest you, so you move closer to
them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns,
rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and
that of others interacting with them.
Perhaps you decide to strike up a
conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their
personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection,
facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they
avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others
about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details –
colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a
bit of gossip here and there.
That’s the best way to introduce your
characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with
a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters
interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past
issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve
been through isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and
be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry,
rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on
the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him
come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active
participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are
acting and interacting.
Reveal juicy details, little by little, to
And don’t forget, the most interesting
characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop
little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an
intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by
layer, just like in real life!
Readers and authors, do you have any
observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?
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Jodie Renner is a freelance
fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in
her series An Editor’s
Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE
UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE
YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving
e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICKCLICKS: Word Usage. She has also
organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS –
Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories
of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook.