Rhobin Courtright wants to know: “What do you define in your writing about your characters and what do you leave to the reader’s intuition? Is there anything you never tell about a character?”
The dossier is a useful tool for a novelist. It can be entirely in your head, but if there are lots of characters, you may find it essential to write down the relevant details for each. That helps prevent glitches like Susie’s son changing from Jim to John, or Mr Cartwright’s occupation being posthole digger in chapter 5, and postman in chapter 25.
How you organise this material is up to you. I often have a set of notes at the start of the novel, to be deleted upon completion (or when the character is no longer relevant).
What goes into the dossier? Everything you as author know about the person. As more details emerge, you can add them.
You can see many examples of dossiers in published novels. A new character enters, and the author gives an instant summary of the details that will be relevant to the story. Here is an example:
Harold Smith walked into the room. He was a man in his 50s with a potbelly and salt-and-pepper hair, an overworked accountant with immense experience but questionable morals. Jill introduced me to him, saying, “Martin, meet Harold, just the man you need for your project.”
This scene is clearly from Martin’s point of view (POV). That is, in order to BE in the story, I as reader need to create the temporary illusion that I am Martin. The author has created a shady accountant for me to employ for some nefarious purpose, and I (Martin) am just meeting him for the first time.
So, how do I know that he is “an overworked accountant with immense experience but questionable morals?”
My point is: the AUTHOR needs Harold’s dossier in order to write about him. The character Martin has no access to this dossier. Therefore, to stay within Martin’s POV, the author must avoid this statement. Giving Harold’s physical appearance is fine, because Martin can see that, but even then, I’d mix the description with a thought or two to subtly emphasise that this is what Martin sees, not something I am telling you.
Here is a second example:
Genevieve Rocker felt like wetting her pants from terror, as she looked into the black hole of the gunbarrel. As a lady of 75, with a lifetime of helping people in all walks of life, she was used to all sorts of hardships. Despite the many pains of her body, she wanted to live. Her thin body shook, her blue eyes glazed over in the expectation of instant death.
If you were terrified, expecting to be shot this instant, would you be thinking about your age, your past history of helpfulness and hardships, even the many pains of your body? Of course not. You would be in that present moment, entirely focussed on the current emergency. Genevieve will feel the same way. She is completely unlikely to be concerned with her body build or eye colour, or what her eyes might look like to someone else.
So, reporting a new character’s dossier is a bad thing. It is an info dump, an author intrusion, and should be amputated.
When a new person comes into your life, you immediately find out a few things: gender, approximate age, physical appearance, perhaps name, tone of voice, your automatic emotional reaction to this new acquaintance. Say Harry meets Salicia on a blind date. She is not going to hand him her CV, or biography, or her scores on various psychological tests. He will find out about her in dribs and drabs, as the occasion arises.
This is how it should happen with people in a book too.
So, the answer to Rhobin’s question is it’s like in a secret service: on a needs-to-know basis. To the reader, the character is exactly like a person in real life. You know what you find out, the rest is hidden.
I have done my very best in this post to stay serious but I don’t promise to make that a series. Let me know in the comment slot below if my lecture without levity has helped to levitate your writing skill (or understanding of how fiction writing works) to a higher level.