Today I was out enjoying the sunshine and just generally walking around my neighbourhood. At one point, my companion and I stopped in a little parkette, close to the main road. Sitting there chatting, we started playing that game I think all humans do, where you look at people passing by and make up stories about their lives. We invented whole lives for people based on things as innocuous as the brand of backpack someone carried, the style of hiking shoes they wore, or the easy confidence in their conversation with their child.

This is a game I’ve played before, both alone and with friends, and never really thought about too much. Just a basic bit of people watching nonsense to pass the time. Today I saw it as character-building exercise.

When I’m writing, I see my characters as whole, complete people. Beyond just appearance, I generally know who they are, what drives them, how they’d react to things, and details of both their past and future. But when telling the story I have to distill that entire person down to a few lines of description at most, and tell the rest through their actions, dialogue, and how other characters perceive and react to them.

I have to do all this while also passing them through the filter of my own interpretation, altering things further. A line of dialogue that I think suggests a particular character trait might not represent that same thing to a reader.  An action that seems benign to me might suggest ulterior motives to another. It’s tempting to fall into tropes that everyone knows and understands, to make sure what you’re trying to say about the character is clear.

The concern for clarity, the need to perfectly represent the characters, can (and has) led me down the road of over-explanation. Better to write an extra line or two just to make sure that what I’m trying to say comes across than leave something ambiguous when I don’t want it to be. But do this enough times and you’ve written whole extra chapters worth of character details. It starts to feel like exposition and it’s not interesting to read.

The little game of creating stories for people on the street was a reminder of how much can be said in small details. If the set of someone’s shoulders as they speak is meaningful enough that I can derive a whole life on it, then maybe I can trust that a reader can flesh out what I don’t explicitly say about a character.  Sure, maybe some of their details will vary from what I imagine but if I pick the right details to share, the salient points should come through.

I think that in my editing, I need to look at the details I’ve focused on and ask myself if they’re the details I should be sharing.  Will the thing I’m describing mean something to the reader, or does it only mean something to me because I know things the reader doesn’t? I need to make sure I’m focusing on those small things that will let the reader understand the character’s whole story, or at least give them clues to it. My reader is that person on the parkette bench, imaging lives. I need to make sure I’m giving them the right brand of backpack and style of hiking shoes to build their stories on.

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