I recently read this brilliant blog post by Elizabeth Bear, where she talks about striking the balance between over-explaining and under-explaining. Summed up nicely in this quote from her post.
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“There’s this tremendous tension for me as a writer between making things too easy and making them too hard. Or not even hard, because that implies some intent to confound–but rather it seems as if the entire course of my self-training has been a see-saw back and forth between obscurity and hand-holding.”
She goes on to say that what makes finding the balance difficult is that not every reader is the same. What some readers might find obscure others will understand perfectly and others still might find painfully obvious. There is no way to strike the perfect balance for all readers.
I find this very interesting because the advice I’ve always seen is to “trust the readers” and not spell things out, but I think that sometimes this leads to writers expecting too much from their readers, leaving too much to be interpreted. As a reader, I find this frustrating, especially about important things such as characters motives.
Connecting to the main character (MC) is crucial to my enjoyment of the story. I need to understand why they do the things they do or I can’t relate to them. Often times when readers think a character is stupid, it is because the reader doesn’t understand the character’s motives. A character can do anything, even something stupid, and as long as the reader understands why, it works.
This is why some stories don’t need too much character development. If the motives are obvious, the reader doesn’t need much backstory to understand why the characters do what they do. If there are engineered dinosaurs chasing them, the characters want to survive. I don’t need to understand their childhood and defining life moments. They do whatever they have to do in order to escape the dinosaurs. I get that. It is exactly what anyone would do in their situation.
But the more complex the motives are, the more the characterization is needed to explain the motives. For example: Gone with the Wind would be a frustrating read and Scarlett would be an infuriating character if the reader doesn’t understand why she continually pursues Ashley. Her motives are complex, and not even fully realized by her, so in order for the readers to relate to Scarlett, she needs in-depth character development.
Of course I’m sure that there are plenty of readers who didn’t understand Scarlett and probably hated her (or thought she was stupid) and hated the book because of it. This goes backs to what Elizabeth Bear said about each reader being different and needing more or less on the page to understand.
I read the book Everneath a while back that I reviewed on The Prosers Read. I thought the book had an interesting premise and fascinating mythology, but what held the book back for me was that I didn’t understand the MC’s motives and because of that I never connected to her. And I’m sure that there were readers who didn’t have that problem, but for me I wanted the POV to go deeper, and to see more of what the character was thinking and feeling. I found myself working too hard to try to figure out why she was acting the way she was acting, and I came up with possible reasons, but none of them seemed to be supported by what was on the page.
I’m not saying that I need motives spelled out for me. In fact subtext is very important for characters motives. Very few of humans are self-aware enough to understand why they do the things they do, and characters should be the same way. Characters should think they know what they want and why, but rarely they do. Still the evidence needs to be on the page to support that subtext.
So a character’s motivation is complicated (unless their motives are truly simple like wanting to survive). If there is too much on the page, the character comes across as too self-aware and feels false, but if there is too little, the reader may not understand the character enough to connect with them. So it is very difficult to strike this balance, and impossible to make it work for all readers.
So what do we do?
I think this is a tough question that has no easy answer, but in her blog posts, Elizabeth Bear says it best.
“And I guess the answer is really to write the story I want to read, but try to make it as open as I can while still meeting my own needs as a reader. To embrace my own quirks and transmit them honestly, because anything else results in self-homogenization, and since my readers aren’t widgets, it doesn’t help me any to try to be a widget myself.”
I agree completely with her. I think a lot of these writing dilemmas come down to doing what works best for us as readers. If you can’t please everyone, you might as well please the one person you know you can, and I promise, there will be plenty of readers who share your tastes. J