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“I know everything about my protagonist, and so should you!”

February 12, 2012

You know the walk and the talk of your protagonist. You know his dark secrets and the stories of his childhood. Briefs or boxers? Simple question. You know what and if he votes, his religious inclination, his sexual preferences, what calms him down, and his pet peeves. You know exactly what shade of colour his eyes are and whether he has to shave regularly. – Do you? If you do, it’s probably a good thing. But it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that your readers need to.

Heard me talk about "my boy" or "my muse"? This is the guy. I could put a lot of irrelevant information about him into his story.

I was typing up an entry on character development and well rounded characters (with a twist) when the idea for this came to mind, and I decided to publish it first instead.

Knowing a lot about your main characters is important. No one wants cardboard cutouts who stand around and say their lines. We want real people in our stories with the exception of a few genres with typecast caricatures (please do correct me if I’m wrong). And there is a number of ways to get to know a character.
Now, after learning all these exciting as well as trivial facts about the character, it’s times to put them to good use. I am always eager to share my knowledge. I hold back what needs to be held back for plot reasons of course. But sometimes I find myself in danger of cramming too much information into a story because of the sole reason that I know all these things about the protagonist and want to share them. I want the reader to get to know the character, and I want there to be no mistakes or misrepresentations of my guys.
In order to avoid character info dumping, though, I ask myself, Is this piece of information relevant to the story or the character development? And am I unintentionally shoving my protagonist down the readers’ throats?
As much as I like descriptions and gaining an insight into the characters of a story, and as much as others may so the same, some things have to be left up to the reader’s interpretation and imagination. What is not being described may be as significant as what is. And I think that putting a character’s life story in chapter one can be both tedious and have the opposite effect from the desired. Instead of liking the character more, there are no mystery and questions left to the readers, and it can annoy them because it seems like the writer is stumbling over his or her own feet in order to make everybody like the protagonist instead of letting them make up their own mind.
I think it’s all about balance. As with so many other things. I have short stories about some of my protagonists that hold information about them which will never make it to the “real” story. They are nice to have, and I am a great fan of collecting background material on  the characters, but some things are better left just hinted at, or completely out of the story.

… Oh, and if you are curious to see what some of my characters may look like, I created a blog called Visual Flipside. – In order not to force them upon you here.

Did you ever have your main character look at him- og herself in the mirror and notice more details than believable? Do you enjoy reading lengthy character descriptions? Do you like  your protagonist so much that you can’t bear it if everyone else doesn’t?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2012 1:56 pm

    I usually have to put more effort into revealing my protagonists as *more* likeable. They’re pretty flawed fresh on the page.

    I’d agree with the “real people in our stories” advice, except in the rare instances you’re not writing about people. 😉

    Cute muse you have there. Looks nothing like how I imagined. He doesn’t even have fur, that I can tell.


    • February 18, 2012 5:07 pm

      I’ve only had that issue very rarely, but I do run into making them more likeable because they behave pretty badly in certain situations and I’m afraid that the reader will get the “wrong idea” about them.
      Hehe, thank you. I can see your confusion. He’s not an actual moose, neither is he a cat (who thinks of himself as a muse too, I believe). He does, however, have a few remarks on whether he has fur or not (and where), but I will not quote them. 😉
      Thank you for the comment!


  2. Maggie permalink
    February 12, 2012 5:24 pm

    I love my protagonists a lot and I find it a challenge to keep from indulging myself in long descriptions of them… and it’s very true that you should only include details about the protagonist that are relevant to the story.


    • February 18, 2012 5:08 pm

      I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one!
      Thank you for visiting and commenting! 🙂


  3. February 12, 2012 7:13 pm

    In my novel “The Termite Queen” my male protagonist is a quite enigmatic character who is shown mainly from the point of view of the principal female character. The information revealed about him and even what he says about himself only hint at what he really is. So I had no problem with him. My female character is revealed through what she does and says and occasionally through what she thinks. There is one scene where her mother drags her in front of a mirror because her mother is trying to convince her that she is physically attractive and is more than a superior brain. It’s a cliche, but it works OK here, I think, in getting a good physical impression of that individual.

    No, here’s MY problem: Whenever I do extensive research on a subject, I have a tendency to want to show off what an expert I’ve become and dump way too much extraneous information into the story! It’s an almost irresistible urge! The result can probably be found minimally in “The Termite Queen.” For example, I hope my readers will find insect anatomy and physiology as fascinating as I do!

    Also, I usually fall in love with my characters and I have a tendency to rehash aspects of the plot that I just can’t bear to let go of. I cut one whole chapter out of “The Termite Queen” as I was making the final edits because I realized that the only reason it was there was to feed my love for these characters and wallow a bit longer in what had happened. Even with that, I still do quite a bit of rehashing, but I think the rest of it is justified.


    • February 18, 2012 5:10 pm

      Thanks for the comment!
      I agree that extensive reseach can lead to wanting to cram it all into the story. I suppose it’s all about balance. 🙂


  4. February 13, 2012 7:16 pm

    I love the characters I’ve created in my fantasy novel, Shadows in the Stone. And like you, I’ve realised that I can’t include too much detail, just enough to get the job done. However, sometimes I worry my hints are too subtle. This is why it’s important to have others read the story, so you can quiz them on certain characteristics you’ve hinted at: Did they notice them.

    Did you sketch that character? I sketch a lot, too, and have been playing with images of my characters.

    Thanks for sharing. Now I’m going to check out your images on your other blog.


    • February 18, 2012 5:12 pm

      Really good point. I sometimes worry that I go over board being subtle too. There is so much I want to say about a character that I hold back – and perhaps hold back too much. It’s probably a delicate balance.
      Yes, I sketched him. I saw your drawing on your blog, too, and really liked it. It’s a nice way to get new dimensions to the characters, I think.
      Thank you for reading and commenting! 🙂


  5. christicorbett permalink
    February 28, 2013 5:08 pm

    I just went through my blog reader that tracks my subscriptions and realized yours got turned off somehow. I’ve remedied the error and look forward to your posts again!

    Christi Corbett


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