When I was a child, a talking mole taught me my first lesson about characterization.
No, this mole wasn’t a daydream during a boring lecture on fractions, or a fairy-tale fever dream—though he is a fairy-tale character. Like many eighties children, I grew up on Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, a live-action series that retold classic Western fairy tales with wit and boundless inventiveness.
And Mr. Mole from “Thumbelina” is one of its most colorful and hilarious characters. One of Thumbelina’s failed suitors, he’s a myopic antiquarian with a penchant for spouting Latinate epigrams and a bizarre fixation on Julius Caesar. At one point, he even breaks into a three-minute song about the pitfalls of “damnfool progress,” in which he slams such woes as destruction of Greek temples, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the fact Nefertiti now “sleeps with crocodiles.”
He’s also a great lesson in how to write an overblown windbag who loves to hear himself talk without boring your audience—or, to put it another way, how not to overwrite a character’s dialogue.
Just like clichés, redundancies, and messy syntax, overwriting is a plague that besets even the most seasoned of writers. Put simply, overwriting is using far more words than you really need to your point across. Whether you’re writing a description of a room, the steps a character takes to get to the grocery store, the choreography of a fight, or even dialogue, you can easily give your reader more details and verbiage than they need to follow your lead. This can easily disengage them not only because overwriting can be boring, but because it shows a lack of trust in a reader’s imagination, even if a writer doesn’t intend to do so. Remember, a written story is not a passive medium; rather, it is like an improvisational jazz session. The writer gives the reader details about a location, a character, or a situation, and the reader uses their imagination to expand upon those details. If a writer doesn’t uphold this implied contract, they may very well lose their reader, even if said reader couldn’t explain why they stopped reading.
The good news, though, is that avoiding overwriting in dialogue isn’t as complicated as you might think.
Let’s give Mr. Mole a break from expounding upon Alexander the Great and let him teach us a far more valuable lesson. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this episode of Faerie Tale Theatre and would like to examine the scene I’m going to talk about, you can watch Mr. Mole’s wild ride through ancient history here While the entire episode is worth your time, his scene begins at 18:50.
Take some time to view it, then come back. I’m just words on a screen today, so I can wait.
The writers of this teleplay could easily have ground the story to a halt by letting Mr. Mole babble for several minutes about everything from Jupiter to Juvenal. But rather than risk their audience changing the channel to Fraggle Rock, they showed us just the right amount of detail to let us know everything we need to about Mr. Mole.
- Rather than having him expound unnecessarily, they merely peppered Mr. Mole’s dialogue with brief Latin quotes and classical references. Additionally, they showed him taking pride in his massive library and enthusiastically sharing details from one book with Thumbelina.
- The set designers presented his burrow as dusty and filled with cobwebs, much like the stereotypical scholar’s library, and gave a host of classical “relics” pride of place among the shelves, such as a bust of Alexander the Great and a fragment of what appears to be medieval sheet music.
- Even the costuming department and Mr. Mole’s actor, the incomparable Burgess Meredith, worked against overwriting. Meredith gave Mr. Mole a stooped walk, fussy mannerisms, and equally fussy and halting speech patterns, reminiscent of those of a stuffy overeducated professor. Meanwhile, wardrobe dressed the character like an Oxford dean from 1890—and made his robes just as dusty as his antiquated burrow. They also gave Mr. Mole a set of thick glasses, which he needs to see anything more than a few inches in front of his face. How better to illustrate that their wearer can’t see too far beyond his limited worldview?
- Though Mr. Mole’s musical diatribe against progress could have easily slammed the episode’s pacing to a juddering stop, instead it gave us even more insight into Mr. Mole’s character. While he’s certainly a pedant and more than a bit stuck-up, his jeremiad against the modern world—complete with literally thumbing his nose and blowing raspberries at anything that happened after 4 BCE—is more comical than it is self-righteous or bitter, a fact that makes him far more endearing than the audience may have originally expected. Indeed, Thumbelina’s amused reaction (“He takes himself rather seriously, doesn’t he?”) also shows us that Mr. Mole is far more lovable than irritating.
Now, as I’ve said, television and written forms of entertainment work different sets of creative muscles: TV whisks the viewer to another world by literally showing it to them, while novels and short stories demand collaboration between author and reader. However, they use the same techniques to avoid overwriting.
Let’s pretend that Mr. Mole existed on the page instead of the small screen. To avoid overwriting his dialogue, his creator would need to do the following:
- Show his self-aggrandizement and pedantry through a combination of his actions and interactions with other characters, rather than monologuing.
- Let his personality shine through in the way he dresses and how he shapes his surroundings. After all, our aesthetic choices often reveal a lot about our mindsets and what ideas and pursuits we value.
- Allow characters’ reactions to tell us more about his personality. In other words, the fact Thumbelina merely chuckles at Mr. Mole’s antics rather than getting offended or angry would telegraph a lot about him to the reader.
- Permit the way Mr. Mole interacts with the space around him to reveal who he is. Just like our spaces, our body language often tells others far more about us than we realize.
Overwriting is a complex subject that can affect every aspect of a writer’s work, not just a character’s dialogue or their characterization. But then, errors in writing are rather like weeds: though you may have pulled up all the overwriting in your dialogue, it can still crop up in your narration and your syntax. Working to rid yourself of this pesky writing issue takes time, practice, and carefully educating yourself about what overwriting is and isn’t.
Or as Mr. Mole might put it: Rome wasn’t built in a day.
So when trying to break yourselves of the tendency to overwrite, keep the checklist above handy as you read, watch, and create your own stories. When something about a character feels boring or “off,” ask yourself if that “something” involves any of the points we’ve gone over in this post. If they do, consider how you could correct the issue using them as guidelines.
Trust me, keep practicing and eventually—with apologies to Mr. Mole—you will see progress in your work.
We’ve all seen it.
Check out Jo’s class starting next week!