“Literary novels are mainly about character; commercial novels are primarily concerned with plot.”
That’s one of those oft-repeated generalizations that drives me a little daffy. Not only are there often hidden value-judgments lurking therein (literary = good, commercial = less good; character-oriented = noble, plot-oriented = base), but I don’t think it’s true in the first place. If there is anything I believe distinguishes a literary novel from others, it is attention to language, not character.
But, as often happens on this blog, I’m getting sidetracked. My point is that for many years I accepted the idea that more character depth was an inherent good. You could have too much description, too much action, too much dialogue, too much exposition, but you couldn’t have too much characterization. (And, in some people’s view, you can’t have too much conflict or tension—but I’ll blather about that at some future date.)
Eventually I realized there is indeed such a thing as too much characterization—even though no one is every likely to mention that in a critique. When is characterization going too deep? With minor characters, making them too vivid and complex can seem to promise the reader that they will play an important ongoing role, leaving a “hole” in the story when they don’t reappear.
In one of my novels, I have an interesting young man named Xochipilli (pronounced ‘Showkapeelee’) who is the reincarnation of the Aztec god of the same name. (If you care, Xochipilli was the “Lord of the Flowers”, the god of MesoAmerican psychedelic plants.) He dominates one chapter and then only appears peripherally in the rest of the book. The top-ranked complaint I received about the book was that Xochipilli didn’t play a bigger role; people found him too memorable for what he does in the story as a whole.
With major characters, including protagonists, adding depth and breadth that doesn’t touch on the story can be distracting. Everyone has bathroom habits. Does describing them really help understand your character? For a certain type of character, sure. For others, it’s just weird.
I sometimes see flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, or phone interactions with parents, stuck obtrusively and irrelevantly into stories. The logic seems to be that everyone has a childhood, and pretty much everybody has parents, so we need to march those facts onto the stage. Well, pretty much everybody has head colds, too, but that doesn’t mean they belong in every novel.
I love some books for their characterization, but that doesn’t mean they would have been better books if I had known the characters even better. Just like description, or anything else, there’s a right amount.
But I bet we’ll never see a review that complains about ‘too much characterization.’