How to Write in Deep Point of View -- Part 5

Avoiding the Dump, Continued:


Info Dumping and Description: Characters

When it comes to description, the “how much is too much?” question applies to characters at least as much as it does to setting, if not more. There are two kinds of character introductions in a story:

  1. New characters: These are people that your POV character is meeting for the first time.
  2. Familiar characters: These are people that your POV character already knows, and with whom they have a past or existing relationship.


The Laundry List

I am a long-time member of Romance Writers of America and, as a result, I end up reading a lot of contest entries, pages for critique, and Book Rx customer submissions from unpublished writers of romance. Most romance authors are women, so most of these are written primarily from the perspective of the heroine.

In at least three quarters of the unpublished manuscripts I see, in the moment when the heroine sees the hero for the first time, I am presented with the dreaded laundry list. The author, in her well-intentioned zeal to help the reader get a mental picture of the delicious hero that the reader will, depending on gender and sexual orientation, either fall in love with or want to be, enumerates his physical attributes, one by one. The piercing blue eyes, the wide shoulders, the rippling abdominal muscles and, of course, the buns of steel are described in detail. We know about the faded jeans that fit him just so, the woodsy scent that emanates from every pore, and the silky rumble of his deep, musical voice. I’ve seen these descriptions go on for pages, never mind paragraphs.

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you notice? Granted, if you’re attracted to the person, probably more than you would about others, but there are still probably just one or two things that caught your attention.

I can tell you exactly what it was I noticed about the last man I dated for any length of time. I looked and him and thought, “Nice smile.”

By the end of our fist conversation, I’d noticed a few more physical details, but I took them in one at a time. During our first date, I observed more. The point is, I became aware of his physical attributes one at a time, as something called my attention to each of them.

Sometimes, there is a good reason for your POV character to be taking inventory of another character’s physical attributes but, as with the description of setting, the POV character needs a reason to notice them at this point in the story.

  • A woman checking out her rival might carefully observe the other woman’s appearance from head to toe.
  • An artist or photographer would realistically scrutinize a potential model or subject.
  • A man about to get in a fight has a good reason to size up his opponent.

These are exceptions rather than the rule. If you want to give physical descriptions of new characters, your best bet is to introduce the physical details a few at a time, in a way that is natural for the POV character.

Natural History

If the POV character has an existing relationship with a character, or did in the past, it is going to impact the way those two characters interact. The writer naturally wants to establish this relationship as quickly as possible, so that the reader knows what’s going on between the two of them.

And information dump about a familiar character can be tiny. For example, when you run into someone you know casually, you probably think of them the same way you’d greet them. If you’d say, “Hi, Bob,” you probably aren’t thinking, “Here’s Robert Smith.” To you, he’s just Bob. You may know his last name, but you probably aren’t thinking about it when you see him.

Yet, it’s extremely common in unpublished manuscripts to see new characters introduced by their first and last name.

Here’s a passage from a contest entry I judged (used with permission).

I looked up to see Mary Ellen Johnson, my best friend, the tall, blonde, thirty-two year old accountant who went to Wellesley, was married and had two children, and was wearing a black tee shirt, faded blue jeans, and scuffed athletic shoes.

You laugh, but you’ve probably done this, too—I know I have. When a new character is introduced, you feel it is necessary to tell the reader who they are, what they look like, a few basic facts about their life, and their relationship to the POV character.

What are some ways you can introduce these facts in a manner that is realistic to the POV?

  • Through dialogue “Hey, you’re the one who went to Wellesley.” “Yeah, and look at me now…married, two kids, and dressed for Wal-mart.”
  • Through comparison. “Her tall, blonde looks always made me feel like a troll” or “I envied her marriage and children” or “I shuddered with relief that I hadn’t fallen into that trap…” etc.
  • Through another character. “Joe, I want you to meet Mary, my best friend. She’s an accountant, too.”

To Backstory or Not to Backstory...

There are many ways to introduce backstory and character description naturally. Here’s an example.This is a paragraph from one of my Book Rx clients (used with permission). It takes place at a company party, at the manufacturing firm where Katrina works, and her father owns.

“Katrina, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

She turned, looking for a place to put down the plate of food so she could shake the proffered hand. And froze.

The last person Katrina had expected to run into here was Jeffrey Kittredge. She hadn’t seen him since her father fired him, six years earlier, for stealing from the company. What Katrina’s father hadn’t known at the time was that his eighteen-year-old daughter, who was spending her last summer at home before starting college, had been having her very first affair with Jeff, who was five years older and had, at the time, seemed so mature and sophisticated to the naive Katy. After his firing, he’d vanished like smoke, and Katrina spent every night for months crying into her pillow, even after she’d moved into the dormitory at Mount Holyoke.

While there is nothing in the paragraph that is glaringly incorrect, it’s not an effective use of Katrina’s point of view. First, it interrupts the current narrative of the story and slows down the action.

All of this backstory is, however, important to Katrina and Jeff’s story, so it is important to come up with a natural way of introducing the details into the story.

I instructed my Book Rx client to make a list of facts from the backstory paragraph, then brainstorm ways they could be introduced into the story more naturally. Here’s her list.

  • Jeff’s full name is Jeffrey Kittredge.
  • Katrina has not seen Jeff for six years.
  • Jeff was fired by Katrina’s father for stealing. .
  • Jeff was Katrina’s first lover.
  • Katrina is (by the math) now twenty-four.
  • Jeff is now twenty-nine.
  • Jeff left town when he was fired, and Katrina did not hear from him.
  • Katrina was hurt by Jeff’s disappearance.
  • Katrina went to Mt.Holyoke.

Here’s the passage, as she rewrote it.

“Katrina, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

She turned, looking for a place to put down the plate of food so she could shake the proffered hand.

“This is Jeffrey Kittridge. He’s our new account manager over at Freidrich Brothers.”

At Paul’s words, Katrina froze.“J-Jeff?”

“Katy.” Jeff took her hand before she had time to pull it back. He shook it, and Katrina felt no hesitation in his warm, strong grip.

“You two know each other?” Paul asked.

“We used to,” Jeff said. “But it’s been a while.”

“Six years,” Katrina said, pleased that her voice didn’t shake. How does he have the nerve to show up here, after Daddy fired him for stealing?

Well, I’ll let you two catch up, then,” Paul said, scanning the room, probably looking for someone more important than the boss’ daughter to suck up to. “Excuse me.”

Jeff smiled at her, as if there was nothing the least bit uncomfortable about this meeting. “Well, well, well. Little Katy Driscoll.”

“I’m not so little anymore,” she retorted, deliberately turning her tone to ice. “You’d find it a lot harder to seduce me now that you did when I was eighteen.”

His eyebrows shot up—how dare he look amused! “Seduce you? Funny, that’s not how I remember it. As I recall, you were more than willing.”

Katrina felt heat in her face, and knew her cheeks were coloring. “At least you remember something. You certainly forgot about me quickly enough back then.”

The barb must have hit home, because Jeff’s expression changed, and his voice lost some of its smug tone. “I tried to call you, but one of your parents always answered the phone.”

“Mama would have told me.”

He shook his head. “I...I never had the nerve to ask for you. As soon as I knew it wasn’t you on the line, I hung up.”

Could that be true? Katrina thought about the weeks—months—she’d spent crying into her pillow after he’d vanished. “You knew I was going to Mt. Holyoke in the fall. If you’d really wanted to, you could have found me there.”

See how much more immediate the second version is that the first?All of the facts from the information dump come out, but this time, they’re natural, immediate, and make sense for the POV character. The reader is experiencing the story along with Katrina, and not being pulled aside for an information dump.


The Story of My Life

Often, the backstory is that of the POV character. Since a character’s history drives his or her behavior, it’s good for the author to know it. However, there are two things to consider:

  1. Not every detail of the POV character’s backstory is necessary to drive the current story forward. It’s okay to leave it out.
  2. Even for those parts of the history that are relevant to the current story, it is important to introduce them naturally.

Often, the author often feels that it’s necessary to keep inserting little snippets of explanation about the POV character’s history or current situation throughout the story.

Bill made it to the subway station with seconds to spare. He found a seat and settled in and he began his regular morning commute to Broadherst & Fine, the prestigious mid-town law firm where he’d worked for four years.

By now, you see the problem. While you’re in the midst of your morning commute, you’re not thinking, “Here I am in my car, on my way to Macy’s, the department store at the mall where I work part time as a sales clerk in the Sportswear department.”

Exercises

Exercise #1:

The situation: Maria and Jeff have just moved into a brand new home in an upscale Southern California suburb. Maria is in the process of unpacking, and had a question for her husband. When she called him, he was grumpy and ended the call quickly.

Maria wondered what Jeff was upset about. She hoped there wasn’t a problem with the upcoming opening of the Los Angeles office of the prestigious New York City advertising agency where Jeff had worked for ten years.

  1. Identify the information dumps in this passage.
  2. Rewrite the passage, introducing the facts from the information dump in a way that is natural for Maria’s POV.

Exercise #2:

Write a passage in which the POV character, Jim, is meeting his friend Richie for lunch. The following are a list of backstory facts about Jim and Richie’s relationship, which will all become relevant to the story, and should be introduced during the scene.

  • In the past, when Richie has asked to see Jim, it’ was usually because he was in some kind of trouble.
  • Buddy and Richie were childhood best friends, but lost touch when Richie joined the Army.
  • A few years ago, Jim and Richie reconnected, and Jim still feels a strong bond with Richie.
  • Jim was always strongly attracted to Richie’s wife, Janice, but never acted on it out of loyalty to Richie.
  • Now Richie and Janice are divorced, and Jim ran into Janice a few days ago. Janice gave Jim her phone number, and he’s wondering if he should call her.



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