Tuesday, January 25, 2022

How much character background is too much?

by Rick Blechta

As I read novels, especially in established series, I often find to many diverging sub-plots getting in the way of the storyline. At the same time I understand why they are there and why the books’ editors didn’t strike them out with multiple slashes of their blue pens. Fans of series generally buy in because of the characters’ backstories.

Maybe it’s just me. I read because I want to be told a story, and if it’s a really engaging one, I don’t want multiple detours getting in the way. This is the main reason that I generally prefer thrillers to other genres, even when they are part of a series. If we do take detours with the characters, they are kept short, more quick hits then prolonged sidebars.

Trouble is many thrillers’ plots get to be too relentless by the time you’re approaching the climax. I am not suggesting that a background detour would be a good thing at that point, but sometimes it would be nice to catch one’s breath before plunging back into the fray.

I know. I know. That’s just a terrible contradiction. I don’t want sidebars into the characters’ love lives or home situations stopping the story too much at critical plot junctures.

The thing that I don’t understand is why authors’ feel compelled to feed us too much background at one time when they’re writing a series. I mean, don’t they have multiple upcoming novels, allowing the to dole information out more slowly. Unless the background is critical to a particular plot in order to more easily understand/believe that character’s response, can’t it just be hinted at with an eye to adding to it in a later book?

I put down a relatively good book recently because of three “character-developing” subplots derailing the forward motion of the story. I’ll probably pick it up again when I’m in a more forgiving headspace. I don’t like to skip things in a book, but I was getting my “not another sidebar” response too many times. However, since I haven’t read the entire book, I might miss something really important by skimming past things I find irritating.

It’s a conundrum. Does anyone else feel this way about certain series?


Anna said...

I heartily agree. I stopped reading one series because the author lovingly described every change of costume worn by the main character: every color of cashmere sweater, every piece of jewelry, each and every change of garment. She must have read somewhere that details bring a scene to life. But she never advanced to an awareness that too much detail stabs a scene in the back and leaves it dead on the page.

Rick Blechta said...

That's exactly the sort of thing I was talking about.

I once read an MS as a favour to a friend. In the first chapter it took nearly a page and a half (the usual double spaced/inch margin format) to describe the character getting out of bed and shaving before getting dressed -- and yes, each article of clothing he put on was described. During the scene we didn't learn one thing about the character's background and motivations other than he liked to dress well.

When I told the budding author that you just can't do something like this, and certainly NOT in a first chapter, he got all huffy and said I didn't understand what he was trying to do. The whole endeavour (and friendship) went rapidly downhill after that.

Another problem I spotted recently in the first book of a series that has stretched to 5 novels so far: the protagonist's teenage daughter was having trouble with a "mean teacher" at her school. The description by the daughter of this teacher's actions went on for a good two pages, and at the end, the parent basically shrugged the whole thing off. What a waste of time. And where the heck was the book's editor during all of this?

Rick Blechta said...

And many thanks for commenting, Anna!

~Cinders~ said...

I hate my editor mind some days. Let me nnow if you want to know.

Rick Blechta said...

Sure, Cinders, let us know!