You may have written long, detailed backstories in your lifetime that turned out, in the big picture, to be unnecessary to your novel as a whole, or which contributed so little movement to the overall plot that they can best be described as waffling.
Or Pancaking, If You Prefer
On the other hand, there are many times in your writing that you embark on fanciful, fulsome descriptions of character traits and idiosyncratic anecdotes that build the story, flesh out your fictional people, and make your book worth reading.
What’s The Difference?
Strong character development happens when there is an active, forward-moving element in the writing. This is something that is easy to locate, when you look for it. It is like examining an invisible fish to see if it is dead or alive. Yes, I’m saying there’s an invisible fish inside your writing. If the fish is alive and swimming, there are ripples and eddies of energy all throughout the prose; something in your gut tells you that things, they are a-happenin’.
Dead Fish, No Bueno
On the other hand, when the invisible fish has gone belly up (or is missing entirely from the water of your novel), there is a stagnant, slightly sickening feeling of waiting, and waiting, and nothing happening at all. When you were a child, did you ever have a trip or a big event that you were looking forward to, and it was the night before, and you couldn’t go to sleep because you just kept thinking about what it would be like when the thing happened, and you set out on your adventure? That is not what waffling is like, but the nauseating, numb buzz of unbearable waiting in your insides is. When you’ve written a piece of diverting character story, and you read over it, pay attention to your gut. Are you sensing forward movement, or vague, nervous nausea?
Victor, You Are So Silly!
Am I really telling you that your tummy can serve as a barometer for the quality of your character development? Why yes, yes I am. (Coincidentally, the word “tummy” has always made me slightly uncomfortable, as has the word “mealy,” which makes me think of thousands of grubby white insect larvae. Hey, I went to the zoo with my kids recently, and we got to see several sets of baby insects in one of the exhibit rooms. It was a lively afternoon, and the children behaved themselves with surprising decorum. But that has nothing to do with character development, or its unsavory second cousin, waffling.)
You’re Losing Me, Victor
Let’s look at an example to see what we can see of a dead versus a living invisible fish. First, I will write a truly wasteful passage about the swashbuckling Barun, and then I will revive my translucent swimmer and write a wandering but productive bit of character development about that same Barun. Buckle yourselves into your seats, fellow internet-scribblers.
Barun carried a spear in his left hand. It stuck into his saddle stirrup, and he closed his hand around it, the same hand he had split open when he was five and the pigs had gotten out. His father had told him all about how to ride out to battle on that day, because Barun had wailed at the blood, and his mother said it was like having a fight, and he could pretend he had destroyed a horrible monster, even though he had really fallen over the fence rail and hit his palm on a sharp rock.
His scar went white after the skin healed, and the muscles pinched together a little and made a shape in his hand like a falling comet. He thought comets were neat. They reminded him of his grandmother, and of sausage-making in the fall. He had never helped slaughter the pigs, even though his brothers did, because he didn’t like the smell of the pigs’ innards. He did a good job plucking the chickens, though, and peeling away the guts. They used to feed the guts to the household dogs. He had a dog named Partchel once.
The polished shaft of Barun’s spear was solid and comforting against his left palm. The butt of the spear jostled in the cup of his stirrup, which squeaked and groaned under the action of his horse. The rough scarring over his palm rubbed rhythmically against the wooden spear; Barun liked to feel the solid shaft roll back and forth over the thickened white tissue. He’d gotten the scar as a child, when his father’s hogs broke out. He’d tried to help the dogs round up the pigs, but his little legs had tangled in the shattered rails of the sty, and he’d fallen headlong, his hands outstretched. His left palm had met with the edge of a rock, and his hand had been sliced almost in two.
Mistress Doldur, the village wise-hatch, nursed him together again, but the skin grew back like a thick stone, and rose in a long hump over the cut. Mistress Doldur told him it was because of the herbs she used.
“Other little boys would have to stay home with mother, and tend the fires,” she had said, turning the bandages over, and binding sharp weeds between Barun’s fingers. “You are lucky; you have me, and you will learn to fight when you are better.”
Character Development Is Fun
How can you tell if your diverting aside builds your character or wastes the reader’s time? Imagine an invisible fish in your narrative, and feel with your gut if the fish is moving steadily forward, or floating aimlessly in an attitude of vague decay (or missing entirely). Find the fish, determine the movement of the fish, and cut or keep your character passages.