It's not easy being omniscient. When I set out to write a book, I know a lot about my characters and their baggage. From the very first line of the book, I know what secrets my hero and heroine are hiding from each other, and I know how these secrets shape their biases and interactions. I also know that I have to thread their secrets carefully into the narrative, slowly unraveling them rather than committing the dreaded Info Dump. Dumping information will slow down my narrative, after all, and discourage a reader from continuing with the story. Why read on if you know what's going to happen?
But Info Dumps aren't just bad form because they slow pacing. They're bad form because they're not realistic. They're socially weird, like that person you barely know who tells you about her embarrassing medical problem. I don't want to learn about anyone's gynecological history while standing in line for coffee, and my readers don't want to know in chapter one that my heroine really does want to fall in love, deep down, but fears rejection after her fiancé jumped into bed with another woman days before the wedding. That's all too much information for a first meeting.
Besides, let's get real: do any of us know, I mean really know, why we behave the way we do? Don't most of us react first and analyze later? To get a better perspective on my current work in progress, I started thinking about what I might look like as a romance heroine and how my backstory might read. My youngest brother is a childhood cancer survivor, and going through that experience with him has changed my life. His cancer was suspected of being environmental, so it's the reason I became a lawyer and now work in the public interest. It's the reason I ran two marathons and write even when I don't want to, because I saw my healthy, athletic brother's life change in an instant and I know I only have today. I'm sure that experience of visiting the children's cancer wing of the hospital—of seeing infants with tubes in them and hearing about a child my brother's age dying in the room next door—I'm sure that has affected me in ways I don't understand. It's colored my entire worldview and changed who I am. But I would never tell anyone about it unless it was relevant. It's simply too much information for a first chapter or a coffee line.
So let's go to my current work in progress, where I have a heroine who is genuinely warm, engaging and sensitive at her best and melodramatic and haughty at her worst. She is also fiercely independent, which can be either good or bad. Upon first meeting, my commitment phobic heroine may not consciously be aware of why she viscerally hates the hero. Rather, she will throw up defensive rationales that correspond with her worst tendencies: he's invading her territory, he's threatening her happiness, he's hurt her in the past and he's a big fat jerk. But then hero surprises her by being decent and by revealing a little bit of himself that changes her impression. When her initial theory of him fails, she is forced to look inward and to figure out how she could have been so wrong. This is when she realizes that she is very attracted to hero. All of her other knee-jerk reactions—he's a jerk, he's on my turf, etc.—protected her from having to deal with the real pain he stirred up: she is attracted to him, but her fiancé cheated and she doesn't want to be hurt again. That's the core of her pain, but it's not something that comes out until later in the book.
My point is that our real life baggage affects us in ways we don't always understand, and our responses as a result of that baggage are not always logical and orderly. People are complicated. The challenge of writing compelling characters is to make them human: to bring them on a journey in which they will come to understand their own history and how it has prevented them from being their best selves. Just as we don't always understand our responses to situations and people, our characters shouldn't, either. That's what will make them fascinating and wonderful and, ultimately, people we want to spend more time getting to know.