Under-Developing Your Novel

This month I'm participating in the A to Z Blogger's Challenge, found here. Every day of April (except for Sundays), we are posting a blog with the theme of A to Z.

U is for Under-developing Your Novel 

We've all heard about underdeveloped characters and plots and how that's a total faux pas. However, there are times when under-developing, or under-explaining, is preferable.

What do I mean by this?

Let's start with character development. We all want a well-developed character. We need to know enough about the protagonist, or even the antagonist, in order to identify with them and to find their actions believable.

Revealing a character can be done in two ways:

1. Showing
2. Telling

Was that too obvious?

Allow me to explain a bit. Showing the reader your characters means that the reader is being asked to discern what the character is like by the character's actions and reactions, thoughts and beliefs.

Telling the reader about your character means that you use narrative, other character's dialogue, or the character themselves to explain to the reader exactly how the character is.

We've all heard the adage, "show, don't tell," which by now has become cliché. Yet all clichés, just like all stereotypes, have a vein of truth in them.

In this case, as with most of your novel, showing is the preferable way to reveal your character. However, that's not to say telling is never acceptable. Telling must be done with caution and in keeping with the voice of the novel. 

For example, an omniscient narrator can better reveal a character trait of the protagonist (and especially the antagonist) than a first person narrator can state about him- or herself. I don't walk around telling people, "I can be vindictive and hold a grudge." If your character does that, your reader is going to be surprised or even skeptical. But I may very well reveal this character trait about myself when someone wrongs me. (And I'm just using those traits as an example...I like to think I am neither vindictive nor a grudge-holder.)

As much as possible, show the reader your character, revealing them through actions and reactions, thoughts and beliefs.


(or "sometimes, less is more")

This is the: "what was that about under-developing a novel?" section.

Part of the reason that showing the reader your character, asking them to discern what that person is like, is better than telling is because when you lapse into telling, it can quickly get repetitive and boring. 

The reader doesn't need to know every inch of a character's body, nor every twitch of their muscles. All we need to know is enough to put a picture in our mind—and one reader is allowed to have a slightly different picture than another. This is why so many readers watch the movie version and say, "that wasn't how I pictured it."

I mean, really--how annoying is it when you're told every single action of a character?


"John pushed his barrel-chested body into the air, his dusty brown hair falling into his eyes. He brushed it back impatiently with a meaty hand, then crossed to the door with a determined stride. His feet made heavy thuds on the carpeted floor in his irrational anger."

Too much? Definitely.

How about:

"John stood up, his brown hair falling into his eyes. He brushed it back impatiently, then crossed to the door with a determined stride. His feet made heavy thuds on the carpeted floor in his irrational anger."

Too much? Maybe.

What about:

"John rose and brushed back his hair impatiently. His feet made heavy thuds as he crossed the room in his irrational anger."

Too little? It certainly doesn't seem like too much.

And yet, I'm willing to bet that there would be someone out there who might disagree and say that it still is too much. (And that may very well depend on whether John rising and crossing the room is important at all!)

But therein lies the difficulty of writing. When is enough? When is too much? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, like subject + adverb + adjective + verb can only be used be used once a page, or once in 250 words. No, writing is far too subjective for that kind of formula. But therein also lies the art of writing, which is what I love the writing craft for.

As authors, we need to leave some of the picture up to the reader's imagination. The amazing thing about reading is that when we reread a book, we can picture the story slightly different every time. As authors, we must give the reader enough to offer a picture, but refrain from over-describing the world.

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. 

Is there such a thing as under-development? Or over-development? What makes a novel or its characters under- or over-developed to you? Have you ever read a book that didn't satisfy because of under- or over-development?