|This is my cat. He doesn't actually have a middle name.|
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with random details. And by ‘kind of’, I mean deeply, ridiculously obsessed. When I was a kid I used to play make believe with another girl who was as detail obsessed as me, if not more. We’d start by deciding what our characters’ first names were. And their surnames. And their middle names. Then we’d move onto their siblings. And their parents. And their pets. We’d decide whether their hair was dark brown or medium brown, whether it was long enough to sit on or shoulder length, and whether their eyes were green or blue or hazel or brown. And whether they were tall or short or medium, and whether they were tall-medium or short-medium or medium-medium. We'd discuss which adjectives described them: were they kind? Imaginative? Adventurous? What did they wear? And then, after maybe a month of details, we’d actually start playing. But there was something important, something powerful, about knowing all the details.
We were both in love with the Baby-Sitters’ Club series as well, because man, Ann M. Martin knew about details. She always devoted a whole chapter to them: first names and last names and siblings and pets and outfits. And after a few BSC books I had most of that stuff memorized, so usually I skipped that chapter (except the outfits, because as anyone who’s read BSC knows, the outfits were incredible). But I figured the details were crucial. That the story would break if you didn’t know them. So when I wrote my own stories, as an eager nine year old, I would devote pages and pages and pages to the details. I would pour them all out, all at once. I would make sure everything was pinned down perfectly, that there was no doubting the middle names and hair lengths and siblings of every single character who was even remotely likely to feature in the story.
I don’t think anyone could get through those pages without dying of boredom*. Even me. So at some point, I started skipping those bits when I was writing as well. Stories didn’t break if you didn’t know for sure that the main character’s best friend was definitely medium tall with green eyes and dark blond shoulder length hair. However, they did break if people stopped reading.
Jump to a few years later, when I was at high school and in love with writing fantasy. I realised early on that even if I didn’t go in for the Tolkien style world building with languages and maps and appendices, the details were endless. How the magic worked, how people and places fitted together, what the climate was like. One day, when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I told myself, right. I’ll just tell the story. I’ll go back and add details later if I need to. I figured that would be a long, annoying task, with thousands of details everywhere to explain, but it was better than being permanently paralyzed by all the random information swimming around in my head. But funnily enough, I didn’t find myself needing to add many details later on at all. As I told the story, some details unfolded with the narrative, as they needed to. Others stayed hidden behind the words, waiting patiently, just in case. It was unbelievably liberating.
I’m still obsessed with random details. But these days, I find myself being more and more careful with them.
How do you decide what to include in your writing?
*I’m pretty sure even my mother skipped those bits, and she has put up with a lot from me over the years. So yeah.