Recently a friend made me aware of an ongoing debate among some circles about the question of how much detail should be given about the characters in a story. Specifically, one group thinks that characters should be presented in only the broadest strokes and left to the audience to fill in the gaps, while the other group believes that the more detail provided the better since it makes the characters more unique and interesting. As is usual with extremist positions, both are actually just as wrong as they are right.
Now, before I go any further let me give my standard warning about writing- there is no correct way to write. Writing is an art, not a science, and there are many ways to achieve the goal of writing an interesting story with interesting characters. What I discuss here is merely a technique that I’ve seen in action and know works well, but it’s not the only way to do it.
So, why are they both wrong and right at the same time? The answer, my friend, is sitting in the middle (as it usually does in most cases)- a story should include both characters drawn in broad strokes and characters drawn in greater amounts of detail. Each has their place and role, and, as is often the case, the reasons for this lie in human psychology.
First, let’s talk about meeting people online for a moment. Now, I’m going to assume that most people reading this have made at least one friend online during their internet days. And, if you’re like me, at some point you have met at least one person in the flesh that you got to know online first. What you did when you met we’ll leave up to your own personal history, but the thing I want you to think back to is what it was like to meet someone in person that you got to know first through the void of the internet. Were they just like you’d imagined? Did they act and speak like they did in your head? Were you surprised by how much you discovered about them at that first meeting? Was it easy for you to connect the information learned online about them with the real person?
The simple answer to the above questions is that when you met, they were probably a bit different than they were in your correspondence. Maybe a little different, and maybe a lot different. The reasons for this come back to the simple realities of being human- 80% (give or take) of human communication is non-verbal . It’s tone, it’s smells, it’s body language, and a host of other tiny things that tell the receiver of the information a lot more about the listener than just what their words do. So, that means that when you talk with someone online you’re only getting 20% of the information you normally would if you meet that someone face to face. Twenty percent!
Does that leave room for mistakes, misunderstandings and a lot of voids to fill? You betcha!
So, how does the brain deal with this lack of information? Well, that’s where another interesting quirk of human psychology kicks in- Closure. Simply put, human beings naturally find patterns wherever they look, and when we see a circle with a piece missing we naturally in our heads fill in the missing piece and declare it a circle with a piece missing and not a twisting line. This is the reason comic books work- our brains naturally fill in what comes between the panels of the comic and it allows us to see it as a continuing story. When the human brain sees a void, it naturally tries to fill it in.
This is what happens in online relationships as well- we’re presented with a sketchy outline of a person and then our brains work to fill in the missing parts. But, you might ask, where do we get those missing parts from? They can’t just appear out of thin air! Where do our brains get the information they need to fill in those holes? The answer is- us.
Everyone we’ve met, dated, rated and seen.
Everything we’ve read, watched and experienced.
Our hopes, our dreams, our fantasies and our nightmares.
In other words- the total experience of who we are right now is how we fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the people around us. Have you met people who turned out to be different once you got to know them than in your first impression? That’s because your first impression was your own brain guessing what they were like, not their real selves. This is why a lot of mistakes get made when people are first getting to know each other, and why internet love affairs rarely work. (You’re expecting to meet your fantasy, not a real person. And the longer things stayed online, the more the relationship is a fantasy and not a reality.)
But let’s get back to the topic of writing and leave love to the lovers.
So knowing human beings naturally tend to fill in the blanks in other people, you will probably be unsurprised to learn that we do this with characters as well. When we’re presented with a sketchy character in a story, one drawn in general terms and broad strokes, Closure kicks in and we tend to fill in those gaps with ourselves. A simple outline of a character ends up becoming a projection of ourselves and we find ourselves relating more and more closely to the character. (Because in a very real sense, the character becomes us! This is called Masking.) This is why most protagonists are presented in such vague terms, usually just being a couple of simple traits, and then we’re left to judge and interpret them through their actions. (Thus experiencing life through their eyes, and growing with them.)
Think about lead characters from stories you like, be they Harry Potter, Naruto, Buffy, Edmond Dantes or Horatio Hornblower. How much detail are we given about them? How alien are they to us? What kind of details do we get about them. Do we get details that make them more like us or less? Every element of their personalities is presented to us in such a way as to bring us and them closer so we relate to and connect to them as much as possible. This draws us in and makes us part of them and their world, and makes their lives an investment for us. Their hopes become ours, their dreams become ours, and their adventures become ours in a sense too.
So that’s it, right? Characters should just be presented in vague and general terms, and the argument is over. Right?
Not so fast!
What this means is that the reader will tend to relate more to the characters who show traits that they consider positive and see (or want to see) in themselves. Conversely, it also means that the more detailed characters are, the less there is to fill in, the more the audience will perceive them as “other” and as not as an extension of themselves.
This is useful as well because it means that the more detail we give characters the more the audience will see them as separate or unique. The more detail I give, the more alien the character will be to the reader, and the less the reader will relate to them. Thus for the protagonist’s best friend I want more detail than the protagonist, but not too much detail because they should still be relatable to the audience. But, the antagonists should normally be presented in great detail- because we don’t want the reader to feel close to them at all.
What details you give and how you give them can and will filter how the audience sees your characters, and this is an easy way to control how close the audience feels to certain characters and how distant they feel from others. Villains are usually presented with a variety of traits that make them alien to the audience (although the best villains should usually have a few traits snuck in that make the audience almost sympathize with them as well) and even characters the writer wants the audience to be unsure about should get lots of detail to make them unknowns until the time is right. (Is that old Lawyer trustworthy or not? )
I’ve simplified things a lot here, and I want you to remember that there’s no such thing as a “wrong” way to tell a story, there’s just what works and what doesn’t. A good writer is one who knows how to present just the right traits in the right way to lead the reader to the conclusion they want. Just the same as a good painter is one who puts all the right lines and colours in just the right places to make their viewer see the imagine they want them to see. It’s all about control over your audience and how they perceive your work.
Or to paraphrase Sun Tzu: “Know thy audience and know thyself, and you shall always be victorious.”
Note: If you want to see all this in action on a visual level, go pick up a Japanese comic book. Pay attention to how simply the heroes are drawn visually, and then compare them to the levels of detail on the other characters around them. Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics talks in great detail about this for visual comics artists, and in this entry I have extrapolated a lot of what he says to apply to storytelling as well. However, if you want to know more about it definitely go and read Scott’s book, it will be one you’ll never forget or regret if you want to be a writer or artist.