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The Character Dossier by Dr. Bob Rich

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dr bob rich

Dr. Bob Rich

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The aim of all fiction is to induce emotion in the reader. While immersed in your story, a person should be encouraged to enter its reality, so that, for the time being, it’s more real than life itself.

A major tool for achieving this is point of view (POV). I think of a story as a sequence of scenes. Each scene has a witness, and I do everything I can think of to get my reader to identify with this person. Any device that tricks my reader into temporarily “becoming” my character is good. Any reminder that this is only a story I am telling is bad. For example, head hopping (sometimes called omniscient POV) is when the thoughts of several people are reported. This is counterproductive, unless the character is telepathic.

The first step is for me to know my character more intimately than I know real people around me. (That’s easy, because I am not a mind reader, but I do know what my character thinks.)

My main characters are likely to become familiar friends, and I’ll know everything about them. However, I also need to know lots of stuff about other people in the story. Even minor characters should be three-dimensional, ready to walk off the page.

This is why the dossier is a useful tool for a novelist. It can be entirely in your head, but if there are lots of characters, you may find it essential to write down the relevant details for each. That helps prevent glitches like Susie’s son changing from Jim to John, or Mr. Cartwright’s occupation being posthole digger in chapter 5, and postman in chapter 25.

How you organize this material is up to you. I often have a set of notes at the start of the novel, to be deleted upon completion (or when the character is no longer relevant). Alternatively, there can be a separate file with dossiers, time lines and other anti-glitch life savers.

What goes into the dossier? Everything you as author know about the person. As more details emerge, you can add them.

You can see many examples of dossiers in published novels. A new character enters, and the author gives an instant summary of the details that will be relevant to the story. Here is an example:

Harold Smith walked into the room. He was a tall man in his 50s with a potbelly and salt-and-pepper hair, an overworked accountant with immense experience but questionable morals. Jill introduced me to him, saying, “Martin, meet Harold, exactly the right man you need for your project.”

This scene is clearly from Martin’s point of view. That is, in order to BE in the story, I as reader need to create the temporary illusion that I am Martin. The author has introduced a shady accountant for me to employ for some nefarious purpose, and I (Martin) am just meeting him for the first time.

So, how do I know that he is “an overworked accountant with immense experience but questionable morals?”

My point is: the AUTHOR needs Harold’s dossier in order to write about him. The character, Martin, has no access to this dossier. Therefore, to stay within Martin’s POV, the author must avoid this statement. Giving Harold’s physical appearance is fine, because Martin can see that.

Here is a second example:

Genevieve Rocker felt like wetting her pants from terror, as she looked into the black hole of the gun barrel. As a lady of 75, with a lifetime of helping people in all walks of life, she was used to all sorts of hardships. Despite the many pains of her body, she wanted to live. Her thin body shook, and her blue eyes glazed over in the expectation of instant death.

If you were terrified, expecting to be shot this instant, would you be thinking about your age, your past history of helpfulness and hardships, even the many pains of your body? Of course not. You would be in that present moment, entirely focused on the current emergency. Genevieve will feel the same way. She is completely unlikely to be concerned with her body build or eye color, or what her eyes might look like to someone else.

So, reporting a new character’s dossier is a bad thing. It is an info dump, an author intrusion, and should be treated by amputation.

When a new person comes into your life, you immediately find out a few things: gender, approximate age, physical appearance, perhaps name, tone of voice, your automatic emotional reaction to this new acquaintance. Say Harry goes on a blind date, and meets Salicia. She is not going to hand him her CV, or biography, or her scores on various psychological tests. He will find out about her in dribs and drabs, as the occasion arises.

This is how it should happen with people in a book, as well.

(c) Dr. Bob Rich

Dr. Bob Rich has 17 published books, five of them award-winners. The 18th is with his publisher, eager to be born. He has retired five times so far, from five different occupations, but is still going strong as writer and editor.

Currently, he is running a “Free book edit” contest. There is no entry fee. Prize is the free edit of a full-length manuscript. Deadline is October 15. Details are at https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1jZ

You will find lots of interesting reading on a wide variety of topics at his blog, Bobbing Around https://bobrich18.wordpress.com

About the author

Dr. Bob Rich has 17 published books, five of them award-winners. The 18th is with his publisher, eager to be born. He has retired five times so far, from five different occupations, but is still going strong as writer and editor.
Currently, he is running a “Free book edit” contest. There is no entry fee. Prize is the free edit of a full-length manuscript. Deadline is October 15. Details are at https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1jZ
You will find lots of interesting reading on a wide variety of topics at his blog, Bobbing Around, https://bobrich18.wordpress.com

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