Characters: The Readers ‘Need to Know’
Just who is your protagonist? Is he male? Is she female? Does the character identify as something other than their biological markers? What does the character want? Who or what is the character willing to sacrifice to achieve what they desire? What in their past drives them toward achieving that goal? What holds them back?
All these are essential questions for the writer who, having a good handle on the answers, makes for more believable characters. However, the reader doesn’t need all these answers spelled out. Some pieces might be considered essential such as, the character’s sex, age, and their time in history.
The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know the character’s Uncle Billy Joe who hung them in a potato sack, then used the hose to drench them that led to the character’s overwhelming claustrophobic tendencies and fear of the water. What a reader needs to see is the character having issues with close spaces, feeling the walls closing in when under stress, and experiencing recurring nightmares of being trapped in a car after running into a lake. These scenes tell the reader what they need to know.
On the other hand, if Billy Joe is a central character in the story, this piece of history may rise to “need to know” status. Some instances from the character’s past can be essential for the reader to know. Let’s say the character was raped as a child. That could be a vital disclosure to the reader when the character faces difficulty trusting others, or in developing meaningful relationships, or why the mere sight of a bearded man might bring up abject terror inside them. The character may not even remember the childhood incident. Maybe they pay a ‘shrink’ to help them understand their difficulties. If the story is about the discovery of that repressed memory, then the historical facts rise to the top of the “need to know” chart.
The writer chooses what the reader knows. Be sure to tell him all he needs to be able to understand your character, their motivation, and the obstacles to achieving their desired goal.