The Sweet Spot – How Much Detail Does A Character Need?

This topic jumped at me after thinking about a post I replied to in Facebook. Bear with me with some background information.

The posting was about the revelation that JRR Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature by C.S. Lewis in 1961, and poor Tolkien was discounted early in the selection process – apparently for poor storytelling, or something similar. This article was topical because of the fame of LOTR, and in particular by Peter Jackson's screen adaptations. Many people 'ooed and ahhed' because they viewed him as a master writer, but a friend of mine, John Hughes, pointed out that Tolkien was far from being a literary genius. Nuances apply here. Setting aside whether a reader likes LOTR or not (or Tolkien or not), a successful storyteller he is, and given the generations and multitudes of people who read, and reread LOTR, he is in my mind a master storyteller. There is a distinction between master writer versus master storyteller, when it comes to the assessment of literary excellence. While I'm not saying the Nobel Committee are the doyens of literary assessment, I think they got it right with Tolkien, from a literary point of view, and especially in 1961.

Now, to the thoughts I really wanted to share with you. If LOTR isn't a literary masterpiece, by some high standards, why is it so successful, including in pre-Jackson days? I think it's because it is a darn good yarn. Tolkien himself stated that his objective was to write a really long tale and sustain interest – he scoffed all his life at efforts to dissect his work, to find meaningful allegory. He most certainly did succeed in writing a sustained yarn. But are his characters written well – with depth and insight? More importantly, did they need to be?

I think we come to an area of fiction writing that applies universally, but in different ways depending on the writer, the genre/style, and the audience: even the most 'literary' writers don't spell everything out when it comes to character portrayal. The most difficult, and rewarding part of writing, in my experience, is being able not just to describe what needs to be described, but in a way use absence of information to enable readers to fill in the gaps. The art of illusion. Some writers spend a lot of time on character description – by show and tell, preferably more by show. These works are often centrally concerned with characters – this is what these writer's readers want – and is often motivated to draw out emotions, states of mind, etc, that simply cannot be invoked by pure, plot-driven narrative. This is goodness. On the other hand, there are works of literature that might want to emphasize theme, or, like Tolkien, plot (a tale, a yarn). Needless to say the permutations of what lies between are virtually limitless.

Regardless of how much characterization a writer wants to drive, in combination with the many other elements of what makes a piece of fiction, there is nevertheless a balance required, and good craftsmanship. LOTR wasn't devoid of characterization, and there certainly are many characters who come across vividly. But a lot of it comes from Tolkien's skill as a writer who knows how to craft 'absence' of information. Tolkien liked the narrative style (hey, have a go at the Silmarillion), and he stuck to his brand of voice. The key here, is that he found, within his voice, the sweet point – the balance, in LOTR (and the Hobbit, and fragments of work he did not publish).

Does this mean Tolkien should have won the Nobel Prize? No. I don't believe so. I think the Nobel Prize isn't geared toward the type of fiction Tolkien wrote – it represents, ideally, a lifetime's work in experimentation and exercising of skills in virtually all facets of fiction. It is also, quite frankly, a literary award in the most pure, snobbish sense. The Hugos, Nebulas, Bram Stokers, etc etc cater for genre fiction, and where there is a little (and I emphasize, little) more flexibility with regard to where along the literary spectrum the sweet spot is required (I think of Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, as a perfect example of all the ideals of 'literary' fiction in genre fiction).

So, how much detail does a character need? Answer, it depends. But to achieve the 'sweet spot', there is just as much effort in determining what is written, from what can be drawn from what is not.
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4 thoughts on “The Sweet Spot – How Much Detail Does A Character Need?

  1. It always amuses me when I read articles like the one you posted on Facebook yesterday Gerry. To my mind there is so much snobbery among so-called literary critics, especially when they discount a brilliant writer and story teller like J.R.R. I wonder if their ‘rubbishing’ of him is purely down to the green eyed monster named Envy?

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  2. Hi Anonymous. I would normally agree with you, but John Hughes is a person I know very well, and I am certain that envy isn’t where he is coming from. And of course, the Nobel Committee had no reason to be back in 1961. I love JRR – I have read almost everything he has written in fiction, and no small amount of non-fiction – I genuinely believe he is one of the greatest storytellers of all time. I’ve read LOTR at least 20 times. But I can reconcile this with also believing that he isn’t necessarily anything like an Ernest Hemmingway or George Bernard Shaw. But then again, is there any way these authors and Tolkien comparable? I don’t know. Thanks for your comments. G

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    1. You have it right in that LOTR is just a superb tale. Literary genius, perhaps not, but I tend to scoff at the literary snobs. I don’t care how fancy the words are–if it doesn’t keep me turning the pages, I will put it down or fall asleep, whichever comes first. As far as detail, there is a fine balance. I enjoy offering just enough that a reader can fill in the rest of the blanks. I see no need to linger on the alignment of every tooth or how many freckles dot a character’s cheeks. Throw in some hints early on and let the imagination do the rest. That’s the fun of reading fiction, anyway–to let your imagination go wild!

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      1. Agree with your points, Mysti – I think they reinforce mine. The gist of this particular article is less on the debate about Tolkien, but more about my realization of the importance of getting the ‘illusion’ right – the bits that the reader has to construct for themselves. It just so happens Tolkien was a master of that. thanks again 🙂

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