I just started working on a new story, a M/F/M ménage that I plan to submit to an upcoming Total-E-Bound anthology. I'm excited because I have an extremely clear sense of my characters, especially the heroine, Ruby Jones. Ruby's a single mother and the owner of a small blues club in New York City. Running a music bar has always been her dream, and now that dream seems to be in her grasp - until circumstances intervene.
Anyway, I was writing the first chapter yesterday and found that I really had to sit on myself. I know a lot about Ruby's history, it appears. And it was a struggle not to dump everything I knew onto the page.
Like most characters, Ruby is the product of her experiences. She's struggled to remain independent, to support her son, to meet life on her on terms. When you know where she came from, you have a better understanding of who she is.
However, flooding readers with back story is usually a terrible idea, especially at the beginning of a book. You need action to grab readers' attention and pull them into your world first. Of course, it's also important to introduce the characters at the same time, providing sufficient background to motivate their behavior. The key word is "sufficient". I find myself tempted to say too much, too soon.
So yesterday, I could feel the tension between what I knew and what I thought I should say. I had to hold myself back. In each paragraph, I had to ask myself, "Am I revealing too much here?" Several times I forced myself to move the action forward, rather than continuing to illuminate Ruby's past.
At some point, I'll have to tell the readers all about these details, won't I? Perhaps not. Reflecting today on the question, I understand that it's not really necessary to reveal everything I know about Ruby (or Zeke and Rene, the two heroes). A rich back story helps make a character three dimensional, even when the reader is not party to every event in her past. After all, we often don't know what experiences shaped our friends, do we?
Maybe the fact that Ruby was married to a philandering dentist or that she has a degree in accounting may come up later in the story. Maybe they won't. It doesn't really matter. As long as Ruby acts real, feels real and draws my readers' interest and sympathy, I've done my job as a writer.
Sometimes less is more. Sometimes holding back is as important as letting it all out.