With Blackberries and Tweeter and all, attention spans have to be worse now than in 1990. I read in Linda Seger’s book on characters (written in 1990) that today’s readers don’t want to start off reading a lengthy section of book concerning your character’s childhood. I suppose exceptions occur. David Eddings’ Belgariad series comes to mind. Ms. Seger says that while contemporary authors no longer have this luxury, 19th century authors (I’m thinking Dickens) often spent a good part of a story on their character’s childhood.
No wonder all those old classics seem so rich in detail and character. I’ll confess that I’m a sucker for Dickens and Dumas. I love getting into a character and seeing them develop and knowing what they have overcome and how they came to be. Apparently, all this still remains necessary for authors to know and write, just not in what you aspire to have published. Draft out the minute details and backstory you want about your characters, but then leave it behind. Skip straight to the action. Ms. Seger suggests that authors think cinematic.
Movies cannot afford to spend time showing their characters’ past. Those that do (I’m thinking Fantastic Four) risk making a movie that lacks an ending. Movies begin at the heart of the story. Doing so forces them, at least the good ones, anyway, to focus upon abridged character development. This usually translates to characters beginning with flaws or having circumstance quickly dictate or create a problem for the character early in the film.
Most books today have followed suit. It never dawned on me until seeing Ms. Seger’s comment why I liked the old classics more than today’s books. Still, it makes sense. Everything is in a hurry these days, even a leisure like reading must get to the point. Authors writing for an audience must give their readers what they want.
Historical fiction and fantasy writers probably struggle with the cinematic concept more than any. Oddly, it isn’t so much because of the character development, but because these authors utilize this time to construct their book’s world. The counter to this is proper planning. As I can attest, it is much easier to integrate setting details into the heart of your book during the planning phase rather than having to do so after wrestling said details from an omitted ‘character development’ section.
Think cinematic as you write and do your planning. Doing so will at least condense your story to its strongest points. Write well enough, and your characters won’t suffer. After all, I’m sure you can think of a few good movie characters.