Secret dossier

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.

Then please visit my fellow writers and inspect their sage advice.
Diane Bator
Robin Courtright
Helena Fairfax
A.J. Maguire
Skye Taylor
Connie Vines

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Secret dossier

  1. Dear Godfather,

    Please come over to inspect SoundEagle’s latest culturally significant post entitled “🌕🎴 Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節): Moon Celebration 🌅🎑🏮🎐🥮🈷️” in order to dramatically improve your secret dossier on your Godson:

    Yours sincerely,


  2. Hi Bob, Excellent advice. I’m now going to check the MS I’m working on for just the sort of info dump you show so clearly. Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Skye-writer says:

    Excellent post. And I heartily agree. All my characters have detailed dossiers so I, the author, know which way they’ll jump when the action starts. But dumping it on the reader like your first example is pulling the reader right out of Martin’s head and looking down on it from the Omniscient POV. Same goes for Genevieve – no way in hell she’s going to be cataloging all those thoughts while staring down the barrel of a gun. That’s when she should be sweating bullets or perhaps peeing her pants, her mind a blank of terror. I like the “Need to Know” axiom – that’s a great little tool – an excellent question for an author to ask when they start editing. Just because I know this, does my reader need to know? Or perhaps at this point?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Skye, your posts on writing are always so good that praise from you fogs up my glasses. Wait… I am not wearing glasses.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Skye-writer says:

        Thanks for the compliment. So many of the original blog hoppers have left our ranks but I still think this is a good exercise because once a month we have to actually think about our process, how we do things, how they work or don’t. And then we get to read the others and pick up hints and ideas we might not have tried.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Bob, I love the ‘need-to-know basis’ 😀 You sum it up exactly. And I love your examples of the info dump, and of slipping out of your character’s point of view. I see similar examples fairly often in manuscripts I’m editing. I like how you explain why they don’t work. I’ll point my clients to your blog. Thanks for the great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Rhobin says:

    Perceptive and direct, as always. You are right, information from the character about another character can only expose their perceptions.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Connie Vines says:

    Lol! Should I call you Hal?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: September Round Robin – Character Creations – AJMaguire

  8. Connie Vines says:

    “It’s like in a secret service: on a need-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.” Excellent way of expressing how a writer ‘should’ utilize pov :-).

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s