Behind the Lines, by Ben Jeapes

Image by Tri Le from Pixabay

I was approached by a lady who wanted help writing a memoir of a particular holiday from her childhood. She remembered it all quite clearly: the caravan park, the countryside, the mixed group of children she had befriended and shared adventures with. It had marked a turning point in her life.

But it wasn’t the writing itself that she wanted help with. As she had started writing, she had realised there was one major item that she didn’t remember, and that was the kids themselves.

She remembered the basic fact of their existence, but she had related to them with all the insight of a typical 11-year-old; which is to say, not very much. She had no idea about their inner characters; what made them tick; how they came to be on the same caravan site at the same time.

And so, based on what she did remember, my task was to draw up character profiles for a selection of children aged 9-11, of different classes and backgrounds, all alive in 1991. It was a lot of fun – a trip down memory lane for me as well as for her. (This is when websites like this one, giving you the top names of UK babies born in the 1980s, come in very handy.) But, if I was making up the kids’ backgrounds, how could she add them to a true account of her own experiences?

Well, nothing I wrote contradicted her memories (and if anything did get in the way then she could always change it) but it gave her a framework on which to hang them. What mattered was that she told the story of that holiday and the effect that it had on her.

She saw that a story isn't just “He did this, she did that." It's about the characters who populate it; their interactions; the weaving of narratives. But, at the same time, you don’t want the supporting characters to take over, do you? Think of it like theatre scenery. Good scenery acts as a backdrop, provides context and mood, and gives you the impression that if you looked closer then there would be much more of it. But at the same time, it doesn’t dominate.

It’s very easy to obsess over the details, to the detriment of the story – and not just in fiction, either. I’ve lost count of the number of testimonies or amusing sermon illustrations I have seen die a death because the speaker insisted on telling us everything. What’s important is to decide on the main story that you want to tell, and keep everything else in the background. Yes, the readers need to feel that the closer they peer, the more detail they will uncover – but at the same time, that detail should be held in reserve so as not to get in the way. I wonder if this is why Simon Peter is the only really stand-out character among the disciples? Most of the time, Jesus could just be followed around by him plus a cricket team. They’re not the story – but we do, I think, get enough detail to tell us that these were real men with real stories of their own, if anyone wanted to know.

There are many elements bubbling away beneath the surface of the text. How many are you giving too much attention to? Or too little?

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of eight novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.


  1. A very helpful blogpost, indeed! At the moment all of my characters are vying for centre stage.

  2. I think the disciples and the small details about their obvious 'humanness' are some of the most encouraging details in the Bible. They really don't get it most of the time and yet Jesus is compassionate to them. Hurrah for us!

  3. So true! I have a habit of promoting minor characters which generally works but I can get carried away with! Thanks for the reminder, Ben.

  4. Totally agree. 'Less is more' is definitely the way to go, although apparently I sometimes go too far in the other direction! (as per your last few words).

  5. 'It’s very easy to obsess over the details, to the detriment of the story.' – God point, Ben!

  6. Very helpful. I tend to put many characters into a story to add colour and atmosphere but the crowd does tend to take over if n0t tightly controlled!

  7. Thanks for this, relevant to my present work - a family saga (rather an intellectual one) and I've been thinking about how the protagonist needs to stand out more from the rest - which is tricky as it's a much about the group...


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