I learned a valuable lesson from author Michelle Hoover during a class at the Cape Cod Writers Conference last August. As I said in the prior post, the draft of my first novel came out pretty easily, but was too large. On the second day of this particular class, Michelle gave us a list of sixty questions we should be able to answer about our main character(s). Some were easy (Name, Sex, Birthplace), but most required complex answers (e.g., What would he/she see about you that you don’t understand yourself?). I started sweating … I
could answer most of them for my two protagonists, but laying out all that material would require another overlong novel. So I asked the obvious question. She smiled a friendly smile, one maybe inclining a little toward the kind she would use with a young child … or a neophyte novelist. “You only put in the story that which has to be in the story, but if you can’t answer all those questions about a main character, the character will not be believable to the reader.” It was an Aha! Moment for me, and most of the 10,000 words I cut out of the novel after that were things I know but that the reader doesn’t need to know and therefore probably doesn’t want to know. It’s still a hard balance, though. I like my characters. I want you to get to know them. But I understand now that there is such a thing as Too Much Information.
One of the early exercises that I did with my creative writing students was having them create several character biographies; the underlying premise was the same—the writer doesn’t need to include all those details, he just needs to know them well enough to know what his characters would say, what they would do, how they would feel in various circumstances. The “list of 60” sounds extensive, but I’ll bet that it is insightful. Eventually, of course, the idea is to internalize the process (rather than merely repeatedly creating “the list”), so that characters are faithfully envisioned and internally consistent.
John, it’s great that you have turned your creative impulses to the arena of narrative fiction, and I appreciate your meta-cognitive contemplation of the process as well.
But I understand now that there is such a thing as Too Much Information.
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