This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.
Developing all the hard work we put into our character sketching is critical when writing an early draft. Sometimes, though, we can go a bit overboard with how many of those details we include on the pages themselves. This can also be true of all the world-building we do before writing a word of the manuscript, too.
Balancing characterization and exposition can be a chore, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to improve our word economy. We’ve got great details, so why not let them speak for themselves, in turn keeping them from getting in the way of our story? Let’s explore how we can achieve this below.
When it comes to bringing our characters to life, it’s worth falling back on the old “show, don’t tell” axiom as discussed in this post. But how does one evaluate whether they have shown or told readers about their characters?
We can start by asking ourselves this: how did a reader learn about trait X over the course of the novel? Did they learn about it through the character’s actions, speech, and thoughts? Or did they learn about it through narrative commentary?
Unless you’re living in Arrested Development, there is no narrator commenting on the goings-on in your everyday life. You learn about the people around you by interpreting their words, actions, and appearance. Sometimes (most times), you have to make inferences based on the information available. So here’s the thing: our readers should have the same experience when reading about our characters.
Consider the passage below.
Geraldo was a sweaty, brusque man who hated armadillos. He had hated them ever since he was a boy when one escaped from a petting zoo enclosure and gnawed on his ankle, which required a couple of surgeries to repair and left him with a limp that his weight only further exacerbated. “I’d rather you took that disgusting creature away from me,” he said. “I had a bad experience when I was a child, you see.”
Unique as his experience may be, this is a whole lot of tell that would interrupt the flow of any scene. Let’s consider the rewritten passage below.
Geraldo smelled it before he saw it.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” the zookeeper said. He removed the beast from its crate.
Geraldo’s ankle throbbed as the memory crept in. “I’d rather—“
“An armadillo, sir. No sense in cowering. A rock with legs is all.”
A rock with legs. Legs and teeth. Geraldo dabbed his brow with a kerchief. “All the same, I would appreciate it if—“
“Surely you have no fear of such a creature.” The zookeeper extended it toward Geraldo. “Created by God Himself, the same who made we men in His image.”
Fear had replaced whatever reverence Geraldo might have had for God all those years ago. The image of his mauled ankle haunted him, conjuring thoughts of the subsequent surgeries, the limp for which the children teased him in the schoolyard. No, he would not permit such an attack again. “Sir, I must ask that you remove that creature from my presence immediately.”
If you’re anything like me, you would much prefer to read the second scene as opposed to the first. The second creates mystery because it reveals character rather than stating it. It also aims to create a hunger for more details on this attack and why Geraldo still can’t get over it as an adult, both of which are assets in convincing our readers to stick with our tales.
This also leads me to my next point on characterization: backstory. If we already took the time to flesh out our characters prior to writing our novel, we know a ton more about them than the reader possibly could on page one. Does that mean we should go ahead and front-load our entire piece with backstory in order to make sure readers really get our main character? No—at least I’d hope not.
The thing about backstory is that it needs to be relevant to the immediate scene. If I rewrote either of Geraldo’s passages above to include details of a fishing trip he took a few weeks before the scene started, would you care? Probably not unless it had something to do with his fear of armadillos, and even then, you’re not likely to care unless that context is established before we get to the backstory.
I recognize that this might mean we have backstory that never makes it into our manuscripts. Really, though, I assure you that’s okay. We as people may have overcome some serious fears over the course of our personal lives, but does that mean we start off every conversation by letting others know about them? I sure hope not. Context is key. Never forget that.
I’m sure you found ways to show off your world-building in your manuscript, too. Fantastic! As mentioned in other posts, setting can be a character all its own, one that should never be neglected.
That being said, that doesn’t mean readers are necessarily interested in exploring every nook, cranny, and closet of the environments in which our characters thrive. Like evaluating narrative summary versus immediate scene, it’s important to find a balance in the details we provide.
I have a friend who writes some great space opera, for example. It’s his wheelhouse, so to speak, and I don’t think I could ever put together anything like the vivid, intergalactic environments he creates for his narratives. Does that mean he starts every chapter or scene transition with a complete breakdown of the newly seen planet’s history, economy, culture, language, and appearance of its peoples? Absolutely not.
Truth be told, there were some early drafts that had setting descriptions that read like Wikipedia articles. The information in itself wasn’t uninteresting, but its presentation did cause the writer to commit one of the greatest writing sins: it awoke readers from the narrative dream.
Keeping our readers immersed in the world we’ve created is imperative. Adhering to the mantra of “show, don’t tell” is one way to ensure our readers aren’t jolted from the narrative. Rather than employ grotesque infodumps, we can have our readers experience the setting as our characters experience it. Let readers see it with your character’s eyes, smell it with their noses, and touch it with their hands. All the details will still come across, but in a way that seems natural to the reader.
A final note on exposition pertains to lectures from the writer. I cannot emphasize enough that our voice as the writer (different from our voice as a narrator) should never swoop into the text, especially to lecture readers on whatever it is we feel is important to know for a given scene, or to provide some commentary on the characters’ actions.
Let’s say you’ve written a complete and total psychopath, not unlike Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. In Misery, Annie abducts author Paul Sheldon and keeps him locked away until he does her bidding. It’s messed up. Real messed up. But King the author doesn’t step in at any point and cue readers into the fact that he understands how messed up this is and guys guys guys I promise I’m not like this in real life and please understand this is just a book and don’t judge me the author for having written such a terrifying character.
We shouldn’t do this either. Characters—though in many ways a reflection of the writer—should be seen as stand-alones, with no need to make excuses for their antagonistic tendencies. They’re antagonists for a reason, after all. They’re not meant to be pleasant.
And don’t—really, please, I’m begging you—don’t toss blunt and excruciating political diatribes à la Atlas Shrugged into your narrative. If we as writers want to tell a political story or provide some sort of commentary, we have to find a more nuanced (ergo, powerful, in my opinion) way to convey this information to readers. We’re promising them fiction. We shouldn’t pull the rug out from under them and slip in an essay instead. If we do so, we might be able to say “got ’em” for a second, but readers will have the final say when they slap our book closed before they’ve completed it.
Evaluating characterization and exposition comes down to asking ourselves a few key questions:
- Are we providing details about our characters via dialogue and action?
- Is any backstory provided relevant to the immediate scene?
- Do any sections read like a Wikipedia article?
- Are we lecturing readers or excusing ourselves as the author?
If we write with these questions in mind, we’re sure to create prose that’s more nuanced and better at keeping readers fully immersed in the narrative dream.