When we develop characters it is important for us to understand them. We need to know what motivates them and how they are going to react to certain situations. we need to know about their childhood traumas and maybe even about the scar on their left butt cheek.
We need to know these characters deep down so we can write them believably. And while our readers need to know enough about the character to feel that they are behaving in a way that is appropriate and for the story to make sense, they don’t always need to know everything. And they certainly don’t need to know it all at once.
There is a tendency to do something that a lot of writer’s have, especially in first drafts. I have been guilty of it myself. It is called the data dump. It is when you introduce your character into the story and just sort of plunk them down with a load of information. For example…
Steve walked into the room. He was six foot two inches tall with piercing blue eyes, lines fanning out from them due to too many years working under the hot sun in his father’s vineyard, the vineyard now owned by his uncle and in his opinion currently being mismanaged. He had plans to rectify that, but right now he was still working some of the details out. What he needed was more information. He knew this was the place to get it. He looked around knowing that most of the people in this room probably worked for his uncle in some capacity or other. They should be working for him. Soon, they would be working for him. He knew they didn’t recognize him as he had been away a few years, leaving right after the funeral when his uncle officially took over. He left because it was best and he needed time to cool down, to think past his anger and to let the dust settle. With the debacle of the will, his father’s mysterious death, his mother’s affair with his uncle and his sister running off with the family lawyer two days before the funeral, he felt he needed to be somewhere else for a while.
Steve crossed the room, heading towards the bar knowing everyone was looking at him even if they turned away when he glanced over. He knew they studied his expensive watch and shoes, his expensive and expertly tailored suit and wondered who he was and what he was doing here.
‘Let them wonder,’ he thought. ‘They’ll learn soon enough.’ He settled himself on the stool and glanced at the offered wine bottles, many coming from his family vineyard. The labels changed and he didn’t like them. They looked childish compared to the elegant artistry of the originals. He remembered the artist who designed them…
If I was doing a true data dump I could have also dropped in more details about his clothing adding brands styles and materials, his facial expressions and a host of other details, but i think you get the point. It’s a lot of information packed into a few paragraphs. Not only is it a lot of information to now about the character right off the bat, but some of the details can get confused in reader’s minds as they move forward. Who had an affair with the uncle and who ran off with the lawyer? A few chapters in and your reader may have to flip back a few pages to double check the relationships. And confusing those two would make for a very different story.
But back to Steve.
Let’s say this is the first time we meet Steve. In fact, let’s say this is page one of chapter one in a story that centers around Steve’s fight to get the vineyard back from his uncle and keep it from going into bankruptcy. Sure your reader is going to need to know Steve worked on the vineyards, that he is family, and that he wants to own the vineyard, but they don’t need to know everything right away. Steve (or any other character) should unfold as the story unfolds. Each step he takes has to be consistent with the character the reader knows, but there can be some mystery.
Let’s try again…
Steve walked into the room, ducking slightly to keep the top of his head from brushing the door’s frame. He had the look of someone who spent time in the fields, but he certainly wasn’t dressed for them now. Everything he wore screamed money, power and corporate. None of the locals could place him from either the fields or the offices and studied him discretely, trying to place him.
Steve looked around, face calm, empty of emotion. When he spotted the display of wines from the Westonbrooke Vineyards, his eyes hardened and the muscle in his jaw clenched before he looked away. He walked to the bar, each step slow and deliberate as though letting those present grow accustomed to his presence. At the bar he settled himself on the stool as the bartender shuffled over. Steve shot a glance at the Westonbrooke bottles and then looked at the bartender.
“What can I get you?” The bartender asked, hand already moving towards the wine.
“Beer,” Steve replied.
Again this could still be paired down more, but for the purpose of this example. we’ll leave it as it is. In this paragraph we may not know he was the son of the original owner or that he wants to get the vineyard back from his uncle. We do know that he is well dressed for the office instead of the fields, but looks like he also spent time in the fields. We can see that there is something between him and Westonbrooke and we know that no one recognizes him.
We may not know it is a family connection right away. He could be someone who heard the winery wasn’t doing well and wants to scoop it up as an investment. He could be an investor the uncle called in to partner with him. He could be a lawyer with winery experience dealing with a case involving Westonbrooke. There are a bunch of ways the reader can take it. At the moment, that’s fine. Let them wonder. Eventually they will realize who Steve is, but that information can be spread out, filtered into your story rather than just piled in one big heap at the beginning.
This data dump can also happen with locations or even plot points. You may be able to see a house so well that you can describe every pattern of wall paper on every wall in every room, as well as provide a detailed description of every piece of furniture. Some of those details may be useful. If you are writing a murder mystery that can only be resolved if the reader knows that the killer escaped through the window overlooking the back porch, sliding down the drain pipe to escape, then you need to work those details in. But unless the magnificent curio cabinet and the items within played a role in the murder, you might not need to describe all of the items within in great detail.
Of course, if the reason for the murder is the theft of one of those objects, then you may need to pay more attention to it than the worn bokara rug.
The details you pay attention are the ones that have more relevance to your story. Some details are background items, meant to flesh out the world. If you give them the same attention as the details that matter, then the details that matter are going to get lost. Likewise, if you have a background character stroll into a scene for a specific reason and then stroll out again once the reason he was there is through, never to return to the story, do we really need to know he is still carrying angst from a childhood trauma? Possibly, but we don’t need to know all of the details unless he is going to be important later.
Edit the details you share.
With characters, and places and well, every other element of your story really, you are going to know a lot of detail. Some of it needs to be shared up front. Some needs to be parcelled out throughout your story and some is going to need to be kept in the back of your head. Knowing certain things may help you write, but you have to split what you know from what your readers need to know.
Too much information, too fast can overwhelm your readers and it can let the important parts get lost in the mix. Think about what elements your reader needs and work on editing some of the extraneous ones out. Pare it down to the bone. Then if you feel it is too pared down, sprinkle in a bit more details to flesh it out, until you are happy with the mix. Aim for a balance where the readers can see what you want them to see, but aren’t swamped with too much information.
This is also where readers come in handy. If you fear you may have pared it down too much, give your pared down version of your scene to a trusted reader and see how they feel about it. Then once you get their reaction, give them a copy of the same scene that has the extra detail you want to add back in to read and see which one they enjoy more.
I’ve done that with scenes before and usually if i am that conflicted, I find that the detail balance lies between the two versions with the one I like being slightly too much and the pared down one being slightly too pared down. Generally, once I find the balance in a few key scenes, I can carry it through to the rest of the manuscript. It takes a little bit of work, but in the end it will make your story a better one that is more enjoyable for those reading it.
And you get to keep a few secrets.