Two scenarios plague most novelists. The first one revolves around clogging the narrative with too much backstory and too many character details. The second scenario revolves around not including enough backstory or descriptions to ground the story in a reader’s mind. I fall into the latter category.
However, as I’m rewriting my 5th novel, Enter 5-D, I’ve discovered that doling out the descriptions and backstory in small amounts throughout the early chapters (and later chapters), grounds the stories, gives the readers enough description to go with, and doesn’t clutter the narrative flow.
For instance, I’m current rewriting a novel with multiple story lines, and have created a new reality since my novel falls into the speculative fiction genre. But if I included character descriptions and backstory in large chunks, then I would slow down the tempo of the narrative, and also confuse the readers. Not to mention, bore myself.
And I also ran into the same problem that I did with my other four novels and that is, not including enough character description or motives for their actions–but I did that less with this novel than with previous ones. But on the other hand, I don’t like reading stories with too much description of the characters, such as describing the eyes, hair, and clothing and other attributes in the same sentence or even paragraph.
On the other hand, if I don’t write down the descriptions of the characters and locations on notepad or storyboard, when I’m dealing with multiple characters, and Enter 5-D has a large cast, I say that a character has blonde curly hair at the beginning of the novel and in chapter 5, he’s a brunette! Of course, you can find these mistakes during the rewriting process and have a good laugh. “Wow, Orpheus, you went from being a Viking to a dwarf. How did you manage that?”
I received good advice recently about drawing pictures of the characters or finding photographs in magazines which I can use in a collage so that I have physical descriptions of my characters. For some authors, this is ideal. Federico Fellini used to sketch and paint his characters (costumes, hair, etc) before directing his movies. For some reason, my mind keeps going back to his drawings as I rewrite my novel.
The best way to use the doling out process is to keep a notepad with the descriptions and backstories for each of the characters, including their astrological signs, date of birth (age), country of birth, etc… I know of one author who is also an astrologer who draws up charts for her characters–now that’s going in depth.
Then when the characters encounter each other we view the other characters physical appearance, voice, etc through the character (point of view) character’s eyes. So if I’m writing from my character Persephone’s point of view, she sees that Eurydice has dark, long hair, and wears a tunic that clings to her curves. Eurydice’s melodic voice sent tingles up and down Persephone’s spine.
Another approach is to combine a character’s actions with their physical attributes such as, “He slipped his fingers through his blonde curls. Then his blue eyes darted around the room.”
When I used to spend time on the author website, Authonomy, one common mistake authors made was to add long passages or chunks of backstory towards the beginning of their novels. Nothing makes me yawn more than overburdening a narrative with the character’s life story. It’s much better to dole out the backstory in the narrative as the character muses about situations in the past related to their current situation or state of mind. And then later, bring some of that backstory into conversations between characters. But only the most masterful authors do this well.
So the main trick here is to know your characters and their situations well. Research your characters or interview them so you can get their backstory. Remember that journalists never use all their material for an article–only that which catches the attention of their readers and fills in the gaps. As an author or creator of new worlds and characters, your job is to take the approach of less is more.
And if any of these ideas are new to you, then pick up novels of various genres and study how other authors handle backstory and character descriptions. I picked up The Hobbit recently to get an idea of how this is done with fantasy, a genre known for blending an active plot with lyrical descriptions (thus the thick books). Pick up a classic from any genre and you can’t go wrong.
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