Saturday, March 28, 2009

Avoid the Dump

Today in my post over on Blood-Red Pencil, I talk about Character Dump. That’s when you start your book by introducing way too many characters in the opening chapters. So many names are thrown at the reader that she forgets who’s who. She can’t keep them straight, let alone remember how they’re all related to each other and to the plot.

So many times, as I read a book, I have to flip back through pages to figure out who a character is. Sometimes it’s because too many were dumped in the book for me to remember them. Sometimes not only were a lot of characters named, but then some of them don’t even reappear for many chapters. By then, I’ve forgotten them.

As an editor, I create character legends. But I’m not going to do that when I’m reading for pleasure. I might flip back to find a character. Or I might just put down the book and walk away.

Hop over to my post on Blood-Red Pencil to read more and to learn about creating your own Legend of Characters.
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16 comments:

  1. I'll have to read that. It's one of my pet peeves also. I also dislike being "dumped on" with an entire paragraph (or more) of describing a character in every detail all at once when he or she is introduced to the story. It just stops the forward motion so abruptly.

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  2. Totally agree,Marvin. Just like we like to have the story develop, we want to get to know the character through their actions. We want their "character" to develop along with the story.

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  3. I'm with Marvin! I'm not into the excessive description - I like a little bit at a time, just as we would discover if we met that character in real life.

    L. Diane Wolfe
    www.circleoffriendsbooks.blogspot.com
    www.spunkonastick.net
    www.thecircleoffriends.net

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  4. Tolkien's Silmarillion was like that. It was annoying.

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  5. Long descriptions were more acceptable years ago, although the '70s don't feel that long ago. But The Silmarillion was published in '77 and written before then. Tolkien's son had to finish it after he died. But if you look at The Silmarillion and compare it to today's books, you can definitely see the difference. Thanks Brooke for bringing up that book!

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  6. I like to make the story and characters as much like real life as possible. The only way I would know so much about a person is if I sat down and asked a lot of questions. That's how you know what they're thinking or feeling. We don't do that normally--unless we're the town gossip and then people see us coming and go the other way. Otherwise, we have to make a guess at what people are thinking and feeling based on their actions and words. Same for a reader with your book.

    So each character reveals just enough of themself to move the story forward. There is a lot of background regarding our charcters that only we, the author, have to know--not the reader. My rule of thumb is, if I find myself bactracking to explain why the character is acting or reacting the way they are, it doesn't belong in the book and I remove it to the dump files under that character's name. I need it as a dossier, if you will, and I have one for each character. It helps me write my characters more realistically.

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  7. This reminds me of when I read Tolstoy's War and Peace years ago. Not only did he character dump all the way through that book but they all had an infinite profusion of names and then nicknames to keep track of. I enjoyed wading through that big fat tome back then but I'm not sure I would have the patience now. Is that a good or a bad thing?

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  8. I agree. Too many cooks spoil the proverbial stew and too many characters slow down the action. I guess that's why I kill so many of them in my mysteries. :)

    Jean
    http://mysteriouspeople.blogspot.com/

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  9. Sia, good use of your character file or dossier. And so smart to keep a dump file for each character!

    Pan, I don't know what that says about each of us, but I'm the same way. Maybe it's just that I'm so much busier than I used to be.

    Jean, you made me laugh. That's such a good thing about writing in the crime genre!

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  10. Agreed! The only writers I've found that can get away with Character Dump is Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Otherwise, this is second in annoyance only to Info Dump, where back story gets snoringly delivered at the opening of a book.

    --Lisa
    http://authorlisalogan.blogspot.com

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  11. Anne Rice did this in her "Witching Hour" book. There were so many characters that it took a second read of a monumental epic of a novel just to understand what was going on. While it was very rich, it was also disconcerting to know who half of the characters in the story were.

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  12. You know when a book has a character listing and/or family trees right up front that you are in DEEP doo doo when it comes to keeping track of 'em...

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  13. I started an filemaker document to keep track of my characters and their attributes, etc. That way I won't forget who they are.

    I guess "geniuses" think alike. ;-D

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  14. OH, Dana, you made me laugh.

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  15. Helen,

    When I'm reading, I hate it when the author introduces too many characters at once - especially if we are then treated to the life history of each.

    When I'm writing, I find it tempting to include more informatio than the reader needs to know. To avoid this, I created a character database where I can write history and backstory to my hearts content. That way I get to write it and I don't feel a need to clog up my plot with all that extraneous info.

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