Character Profiles and Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

Photo courtesy of Reno Tahoe.

I’m about 12,000 words into the first book of my new series and I feel like I’ve hit a wall. Fortunately, I know exactly why.

It isn’t because I’ve lost interest in the story, or because there isn’t enough conflict to sustain it. The problem is that my protagonists and I haven’t developed a close enough relationship yet.

I know the basics about them: race, height and general aesthetics. I know all about my heroine’s career and who her parents are. I also know the two most pivotal events in her life. I know where she grew up, but not exactly how she grew up. The details about her deceased mother, her father who she lives with when she returns to her hometown and the sister that I only realized she had about 10,000 words into the story.

Do any of these details matter to the reader?

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon. Some rights reserved.Not directly. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know what color car my character drives or when and with whom she had her first kiss. (And yes, I’ve been guilty of sharing way too much info with the reader. Another lesson learned.) Still, those kind of details are what help make the character a living, breathing person in my mind so that I can translate that kind of realism to the page.

It is very much like Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory regarding writing. An iceberg’s danger (or effectiveness) lies in the fact that only a small part of it shows above the surface. The great majority of the iceberg lies below the surface of the frigid waters. Hemingway, with his minimalist style, felt that good writing takes the same approach.

Regarding his Iceberg Theory on writing, Hemingway once stated, “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” Hemingway further emphasized the need for the writer to know the juicy bits left unsaid by stating, “A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

That’s where I’m stuck now, at a hollow place in my story. Right now my characters and I are on polite, first-name terms. But we don’t really know each other yet. What we need to do is sit down over a good meal, a pitcher of mojitos and an old-school soundtrack. That’s when you get to know people.

Since characters don’t drink when they’re not on the page, I have to resort to my tried and true method for achieving the same effect–the detailed character profile. I’ve talked about the importance of character profiles before. Yet, I can never seem to make myself create those necessary profiles before I begin writing the book. I need to write my way into the story a bit and get a feel for the characters before I can begin filling them out completely.

So despite the fact that I’m only about one-third of the way to my ambitious word count for this week, taking the time out to complete my character profiles isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. My readers may not need the seemingly insignificant details of my characters’ lives, but I surely do. And this time I’ll know just which juicy bits to keep to myself, and which ones should be shared.

As a writer, how do you get to know your characters? As a reader, what kinds of little details bring a character to life for you?

Photos courtesy of Reno Tahoe and Ed Yourdon respectively. Some rights reserved.


Character Profiles and Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory — 11 Comments

    • I reviewed the personality chart I made for main character (using a Zodiac chart) before I started doing the character sketch. Things are starting to come together. Hope everything starts clicking on your story soon. You know how fickle characters can be. I think they like to make us twist in the wind a bit. 😉

  1. I gotta tell you, I do character sketches before I start writing, and I’m wondering if I should wait a few thousand words into the story before I begin. The sketches give me a place to start, but it’s not until I’m writing the story that I get a feel for the character. And sometimes even if I have done some preliminary sketches, I find I have to go back and redo them or add to them to really figure things out. So I think your problem is par for the course!

    • Thank you for sharing that, Jana. I’ve often wondered if I’d be better of creating the detailed sketch first. So maybe writing my way in is best. I’ve definitely had to go back and make changes (either on the sketch or in the story) as I learn more about the character. The beauty of editing!

  2. I never do character sketches. I totally hit this place you’re talking about, usually around 40-50%. I just power through and keep writing – that’s how I get my characters to spill the good stuff. Then I go back and revise the beginning once I have a complete draft, layering in those iceberg tips you mention. My revisions are usually 90% on the first act.

    • Makes me feel better to know that a brilliant and prolific writer also hits these kind of walls. Thanks for sharing that, Jeffe. I have to get better about forcing myself to write through it when the writing gets tough. It’s like exercising…it’s hard to get off the couch, but once you do, each step becomes easier and more enjoyable.

  3. I’m there too (maybe we should all open a coffeeshop called The Wall) and I think it’s for the same reason. This is why I love backstory and write too much of it! Great post, Reese!

    • Thanks, Samantha! You made my day. :-) The personality profiles and character sketches definitely help me get to know the character more intimately. Once I do, everything goes swimmingly and the characters begin revealing little secrets about themselves. I love when that happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *